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Pitt's Conner to play as pass rusher on 3rd downs when not at running back

| Saturday, Aug. 23, 2014, 6:06 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Trib Total Media
Pitt running back James Conner runs during practice Tuesday, Aug. 5, 2014 on Pittsburgh's South Side.
Chaz Palla | Trib Total Media
Pitt running back James Conner carries during practice Friday, Aug. 15, 2014, on Pittsburgh's South Side.

Pitt coach Paul Chryst and his dual-threat sophomore James Conner have a unique relationship.

Conner plays running back and defensive end to the brink of exhaustion, and Chryst tells him when he's tired.

“He sees it in me if I'm slacking,” Conner said. “He says, ‘Don't save nothing.' I'll take care of you.”

Chryst keeps a watchful, wary eye on his star running back, who also may be his best pass rusher. Conner, who spends time every day with running backs coach John Settle and defensive ends coach John Palermo, will play defense only on third downs.

Which raises the question:

“When you look at Conner, and you watch him rush the passer and see him run the ball, what is his natural position?” ESPN college football analyst John Congemi said.

“You just hope he is not spent doing his second job (defense) so he can do the first job really well.”

Congemi, a former Pitt quarterback, remembers when Rick Trocano played safety and quarterback for the Panthers in the late 1970s — just not in the same game such as Conner did last year in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl.

Congemi said playing two positions is probably more difficult today.

“It's never easy to do,” he said, “but if you were going to do it, it might have been easier (in the past), only because the speed of the game and the size of the players weren't what they are today.”

Chryst has said he plans to keep Conner on “a pitch count.”

Conner, 19, is one of the few players on a Power 5 team who will play on both sides of the ball this season.

UCLA's Myles Jack played linebacker and running back last season, earning Pac-12 offensive and defensive freshman of the year honors and the nickname “Runningbacker.”

But he is spending little time this summer on offense, which he calls “his hobby,” USA Today reported.Conner treats his second job a lot differently than Jack does.

He said he spends much of his free time with Palermo and assistant strength coach Kenechi Udeze, who was an All-American defensive end at USC and a first-round draft choice of the Minnesota Vikings.

“I think I'm a better running back, I'll say that,” Conner said. “But working with coach JP and coach KU every day, I get better.

“I'm blessed to have the ability to play both. It will help me get exposure, help Pitt get exposure.”

The reality: Pitt needs Conner at both positions.

He is the best running back at a position with plenty of depth — senior Isaac Bennett, sophomore Rachid Ibrahim and freshmen Chris James and Qadree Ollison. Also, two 2015 running backs verbally committed to Pitt — four-star Darrin Hall of Youngstown, Ohio, and three-star Sekai Lindsay of Melbourne, Fla.

There is much less depth at defensive end, one of the team's thinnest positions.

Chryst is developing options, especially if Hall and Lindsay end up signing Pitt letters of intent next year.

“If Coach were to come to me, ‘James, I want you to play full-time defense,' I'd say, ‘OK, Coach, let's roll with it,' ” Conner said.

“But until that happens, I'll stay at running back.”

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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