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Pitt freshman running back not light on confidence

| Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2013, 11:24 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
PItt running back James Conner practices Saturday, Aug. 10, 2013, on the South Side.

While Pitt running back Isaac Bennett watches practice wearing a full-length leg brace over his injured right knee, freshman James Conner said Tuesday he is ready to seize the starting job.

“I plan on being the first running back on the field (for the opener Sept. 2 against Florida State),” Conner said.

Coach Paul Chryst is not ready to announce a starter, but Bennett hasn't practiced since injuring his knee Aug. 10, the fifth day of training camp. Bennett, a junior who started two games as a freshman in 2011, ascended to the job when Ray Graham exhausted his eligibility last season and Rushel Shell left the team this spring.

Meanwhile, Conner has been one of the surprises of camp. At 6-foot-2, 235 pounds, he has displayed power and speed while trying to alter an upright running style that coaches detest.

“I have to run low to the ground to keep my balance and break the defenders,” he said.

Conner said he reported to camp weighing 250 pounds, but he changed his diet and lost between 10 and 15.

“I read something on the Internet — I shouldn't be paying attention to that — but it said I can't hit the long home run. So, I want to be able to break a 60-yard run and go the distance, instead of getting tripped up.

“Watching film from the first couple days of practice, I was, ‘Man, I look slow out there.' Now I feel good.”

Conner's weight-loss program — eating fruits and vegetables, cutting out bread and drinking lots of water — included Pitt offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph's story of former Wisconsin running back Montee Ball.

Conner said Rudolph told him Ball was overweight early in his career, but he dropped to 215 pounds, rushed for 5,140 yards and was a second-round pick of the Denver Broncos this year.

Conner was an all-state selection last season at Class AAAA Erie McDowell, where he ran for 1,680 yards and 21 touchdowns. Yet, his only college offers — other than Pitt — came from four Mid-American Conference schools and Youngstown State.

That only served to fuel his desire to succeed.

“I don't let anyone else tell me how good I can be,” he said. “I come out every day and try to outwork everybody on the field.”

Conner said he is accustomed to being the underdog. He has four older brothers, including one in the Air Force and another who is a cage fighter.

“Them beating me up all day, I have to have confidence,” he said.

Pitt is building a small stable of young running backs that includes Conner and freshman Rachid Ibrahim.

“We call ourselves Thunder and Lightning,” Conner said. “Rachid is real shifty. He's a speedster.”

Add powerful sophomore Malcolm Crockett, and Conner says, “All three of us, we could be dangerous.”

Chryst smiled at Conner's bravado, but he knows two weeks of good work in camp is far from a guarantee.

“I'm happy with the way he is progressing,” Chryst said. “But there is still a lot of learning that needs to be done, and you hope for his whole career, he is always learning.”

Jerry DiPaola is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jdipaola@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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