Only three Division I schools felt strongly enough about No. 30 on the McDowell High School football team to offer him a scholarship. Only one of those three schools—the one closest to his Erie, Pennsylvania, home—wanted him to play running back.
One. That’s it.
More than 100 others quickly glazed right over James Conner for reasons that are no longer relevant. And if we’re laying all the cards across the table, the coaching staff that offered him a spot on offense likely did so because backs it coveted more simply said no first.
So during high school playoffs, Pittsburgh phoned the nation’s No. 73 outside linebacker to see if he’d be interested in playing a position he was just beginning to learn. With offers from Toledo and Bowling Green, Conner, having just set the single-season and all-time quarterback sack records at his high school, wasted little time providing an answer.
“That was it,” Conner told Bleacher Report. “They said they wanted to try me at running back, and I was completely comfortable with it.”
At the time, Pittsburgh was taking a leap of faith. Prior to his senior year in high school, Conner’s history at the position was limited. Other than one full season, it was relatively nonexistent. But when he posted 1,680 rushing yards and found the end zone 21 times on only 155 carries, the Panthers decided he was worthy of a shot.
Two years after Conner determined he was comfortable playing a position he is now attempting to master, the decision has paid off. The forgotten recruit weighing limited options has ascended to running back stardom, even if many were too preoccupied to notice.
Last season, Conner ran for 1,765 yards and scored 26 touchdowns as a sophomore. He averaged nearly six yards per carry—many of which were earned yards after initial contact. Many more came after additional contact.
He delivered the first All-American season for a Pittsburgh running back since Craig "Ironhead" Heyward in 1987. He also broke multiple records held by the great Tony Dorsett, including total touchdowns in a season at Pitt. At a running back-rich program, he added more history.
And yet, not enough people celebrated one of the great rushing seasons over the past decade. Buried beneath the absurdity of Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon, the postseason wizardry of Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott and the magnificent debuts from a gifted crop of freshmen backs, few stopped to appreciate the greatness of No. 24 on the Pittsburgh Panthers—a cannon ball blessed with a Maserati engine.
Go back and watch last year's overtime loss against Duke—a game where Conner ran for a season-high 263 yards—and you'll find a collection of moves that were once reserved for much smaller humans.
“He’s the biggest tailback I’ve ever coached,” new Pittsburgh running back coach Andre Powell said of the 6'2", 240-pound back. “He’s slimmed down and dropped his body-fat percentage, but he would be probably 10 or 15 pounds bigger than any tailback I have ever worked with.”
Size, of course, is only a portion of the man. And on this random offseason day, right after he put his body through necessary and purposeful hell, I can sense Conner has heard enough questions about life as a bigger back. I can’t exactly blame him.
He answered them all, of course. Despite the violent nature of his running style and his love of contact, Conner is soft-spoken and personable. When he walks out of the tunnel, he flips on a switch. He spends the next few hours inflicting pain on men bold enough to stand in his way before he walks back through the tunnel and the switch flips back to its original resting position. He takes off one hat and puts on another.
For a moment, however, the switch flipped mid-conversation. Politely, while fielding another question about his Hulk-ish tendencies, Conner reminded me of something that is easy to forget.
“I can still make people miss,” he said, finally having heard enough. “And I try to make people miss first. I use my size to my advantage cause I know it’s not fun to tackle someone with a linebacker build.”
The full truth of this statement cuts deeper than the surface. If he wanted to—or if he had to—Conner believes he could easily shoot up to 270 pounds. Had he chosen a college other than Pittsburgh to play football, the coaching staff would have asked him to do precisely that while playing defensive line.
Even at his current playing weight, the former staff at Pitt toyed with the idea of playing him both ways. With the team in need of a pass rush, he practiced at defensive end against the linemen who made his life easier on the offensive side. He didn’t necessarily mind double-dipping, although he held on to his offensive mindset throughout.
With a new staff in place, there are no current plans to play him on defense, according to Conner. Even with a defensive-minded head coach in Pat Narduzzi, the team wants Conner to focus on what he does best: punish defensive players for trying to bring him down. But only if he can’t make them miss first.
Conner is a unique man to game-plan against. He’s listed at 240 pounds on his official team bio, which is down from last year. That is not by chance; it's been a focus this offseason.
Regardless of what the scale reads, he will not be a prisoner to this number. He doesn't need to be one, given how mindful he is of what enters his system. For him, it’s more about feel. And right now, coming off an offseason where he pushed himself to the brink, his body has never felt better.
“He does not want to be known as a big back because he knows what label goes with that,” Powell said. “Now, he does not mind running through tackles, but he wants people to know that he has legitimate speed.”
His new position coach isn’t particularly worried about his star player’s physical makeup. That part comes naturally. Instead of obsessing over an ideal playing weight, Powell has worked diligently with Conner on improving his overall F.B.I.—his football intelligence.
After stops at Virginia, North Carolina, Clemson and Maryland, Powell landed at Pittsburgh when Narduzzi reached out. Having known Narduzzi for more than 20 years—“longer than my wife,” Powell said—he didn’t hesitate to join an old friend.
A college coach since 1989, Powell has coached some unique backs with unique physical attributes: Thomas Jones, Tiki Barber and C.J. Spiller all thrived under his tutelage. Each back was undeniably great and also undeniably different. That same theme holds true with his new project.
“He’s different from anybody I have ever coached,” Powell said on Conner. “If you played C.J. Spiller, he could get one step on you, and it was over. Against Tiki Barber, you had to defend him in the running game and the passing game. James is a big man who can really run. To get him on the ground, you’re going to have to step in front of him, and I can’t imagine that’s much fun when he’s at top speed.”
Finally comfortable in his new digs, Powell oftentimes has company in his work space. It is not unusual for him to swing open his office door and find Conner already cemented in the enclosed room, deeply entrenched in game film.
The two have worked hard not just on watching tape but also studying specific plays and moments. Powell wants Conner to be more of a factor in the passing game, both as a blocker and as a wideout. This offseason has been all about taking that next step.
“In years past, he wasn’t in the game on some passing downs,” Powell said. “We want to change that. He’s got tremendous ball skills out of the backfield, and that was not something they asked him to do a lot last year. But he can do it."
Conner has embraced the art of consuming film. The allure of the NFL has him.
It’s his ultimate goal to play at the next level, right alongside playing in the championship game he never got to experience in high school. Winning the ACC comes first—then the rest can fall into place.
These are the things that drive the young man. The new faces around him can feel that drive. They can sense what he is working toward. Now it's simply a mater of getting everyone else on board.
“What has impressed me is that he wants to be even better,” Narduzzi said. “James has said he wants to be a more complete and well-rounded back. When you have the ACC Player of the Year saying publicly he wants and needs to get better, that sets a strong example for the rest of the locker room.”
The goal is to never go unnoticed again—no matter what the scale reads or the story the stats may tell. Last year, they told a tremendous tale that wasn't told enough. They reminded us that a nation of talent evaluators missed out on a golden opportunity. They reminded us that one team, whether it knew it or not at the time, had it right.
But Conner can't possibly stop now that he has made it, because in his eyes, he is nowhere close. There are still bone-jarring hits to be delivered. There are still defenders to outrun. There is still a long list of items to master.
Having finished his morning workout and fielded each ridiculous question about his build—graciously, I might add—Conner is finally ready to unwind and flip the switch off for the day.
Months away from the first game of his junior season, he can, at least momentarily, relax.
After this conversation ends, he will finally be able to do what he loves most. He will head to his favorite spot these days, the place where he spends much of his free time. It's a place that reminds him of how far he's come and how much further he needs to go.
The film room.
Adam Kramer is the College Football National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Unless noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand. Recruit rankings are courtesy of 247Sports.