Pitt sophomore RB Conner covering both sides of ball in offseason

Pitt running back James Conner works with youths at the Harbor Creek football camp Monday, June 16, 2014, at Harbor Creek High School.
Pitt running back James Conner works with youths at the Harbor Creek football camp Monday, June 16, 2014, at Harbor Creek High School.
Photo by Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Jerry DiPaola
| Monday, June 16, 2014, 7:57 p.m.

HARBOR CREEK — When Pitt running back James Conner and Steelers linebacker Lawrence Timmons crossed paths last year at their shared South Side training facility, it turned out to be more than a routine meeting.

Timmons gave Conner career advice that the younger player is not taking lightly.

“He told me I should be playing defense,” Conner said Monday after working the Harbor Creek High School football camp. “I kind of laughed it off, but it definitely stuck with me. I put heavy thought to that.”

Pitt reports to training camp Aug. 3, and Conner will be a focal point while he tackles his main job — feature running back — and dabbles in his second position, defensive end.

“I don't know which one I like (best),” said Conner, who was helping Harbor Creek coach Ned Bailey, a friend and coach from their days together at Erie McDowell.

“I've been playing running back since I was knee high,” Conner said. “That's always my first love. (But) I see the (NFL) draft and I see the success Aaron (Donald) had on defense. It would be great to follow up on somebody like that.”

Coach Paul Chryst has told Conner to plan to play both positions.

“We'll see what happens,” said Conner, who is entering his sophomore season. “Maybe junior year, I'll play one position, maybe defense, maybe offense.”

To cover all bases, Conner has set goals for himself.

“I want to have about 10 sacks and go for about 10 touchdowns and try to go for about 1,300 rushing yards,” he said. “I want to accomplish big things this year. I am going to do everything in the weight room and on the field and listen to my coaches to accomplish that.”

Conner, who said his knee is healed from an injury suffered in the spring, realizes he set lofty goals. But he remains undaunted in his mind.

“Every time I tell myself I'm going to do something, I do it,” he said. “Before the bowl game, I said I want to leave with the MVP, and I did that. I said I want to run a 4.4- (second) 40-yard dash, and I did that (in the spring). So far, I'm having success putting my mind to something and doing it.”

Bailey said Conner wasn't always as motivated.

“He didn't always seem to want to go 100 percent for me,” Bailey said.

But when Bailey, then McDowell's freshman coach, demoted Conner to second team, he lit a fire.

“Holding the reins back on him, making him toe the line, saying, ‘Hey, you are not going to play until you put 100 percent effort into it,' I hope that helped him out,” Bailey said.

Conner became a star in the McDowell weight room, bulking up from a 5-foot-10, 185-pound high school freshman to the 6-2, 250 college football player he is today. He also said he is benching 405 pounds after lifting 330 the first time he tried as a junior.

McDowell strength coach Dave Esser said he always believed Conner possessed NFL potential.

“I still believe today his big thing is defensive end. Jabaal Sheard, that's him,” Esser said, referring to the former Pitt All-American and current Cleveland Browns player.

Meanwhile, Conner said Chryst advises him to remain focused on whatever the task is that day.

“He says, ‘Don't let all the attention get to my head,' ” Conner said. “I already knew that.”

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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