Pitt football notebook: Freshman getting long look at RB
By Jerry DiPaola
Published: Saturday, Aug. 10, 2013, 5:03 p.m.
Pitt running back James Conner is a humble, 18-year-old freshman who knows his place in the pecking order of the team.
With those thoughts always at the fore, he'll tell you he received most of the work with the first team Saturday largely due to starter Isaac Bennett's knee injury.
That's true, but coaches kept Conner busy all week — before Bennett got hurt — and have plans to use him this season when it counts.
“Coaches told me, ‘You need to be ready because you are going to be getting the ball this year,' ” he said after practice. When asked if he expects to be redshirted, he said, “No, I don't believe so.”
Conner is a physically imposing running back (6-foot-2, 230 pounds) who played defensive end at a Pitt camp last summer before his senior year at Erie McDowell High School. But after Conner was named all-state at both positions by Pennsylvania Football News (end as a junior, running back as a senior), Pitt coaches decided to use him on offense.
Pitt needed help at running back even before Bennett's injury, with only sophomore Malcolm Crockett (12 career carries), senior and former walk-on Desmond Brown and 185-pound freshman Rachid Ibrahim providing depth.
Conner ran for 1,680 yards and a 10.8-yards-per-carry average in Class AAAA last season, but he knows that carries no weight in college.
“I'm still young,” he said. “I'm trying to get my grown-man strength.”
Coach Paul Chryst will make sure he sees more of Conner in the upcoming weeks.
“He certainly earned the right to get more reps,” Chryst said.
On Saturday, the first significant injuries of training camp struck Bennett, safety Jason Hendricks and cornerback K'Waun Williams — all starters.
Bennett suffered what appears to be a right knee injury. Medical personnel strapped an ice bag to Bennett's knee, but he didn't wear it long and watched the rest of practice while standing behind the action.
Hendricks and Williams suited up but did not participate.
“They had a couple things, hopefully nothing serious,” Chryst said. “We knew (Williams) wasn't going to go today. Jason, we kind of wanted to take care of him a little bit. Hopefully we are all right and (will) have good day (Sunday).”
Chryst said Hendricks' injury is not related to the toe problem that kept him out of spring drills.
Twice as nice
Pitt will practice twice Sunday, and both sessions are closed to the media.
“If one's good, two is great,” Chryst said. “We'll have an even better day.”
Linebacker Todd Thomas, who said Wednesday he was quitting the team, did not show up and was absent for the fourth consecutive day. Thomas had expressed interest in rejoining the Panthers, his high school basketball coach said.
Jerry DiPaola is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.
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