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Pitt's Conner to have season-ending surgery for torn MCL

Jerry DiPaola
| Monday, Sept. 7, 2015, 12:08 p.m.
Pitt running back James Conner stands on the sideline after being hurt against Youngstown State on Saturday, Sept. 5, 2015, at Heinz Field.
Chaz Palla | Trib Total Media
Pitt running back James Conner stands on the sideline after being hurt against Youngstown State on Saturday, Sept. 5, 2015, at Heinz Field.
Pitt running back James Conner tries to spin out of a tackle against Youngstown State on Saturday, Sept. 5, 2015, at Heinz Field.
Chaz Palla | Trib Total Media
Pitt running back James Conner tries to spin out of a tackle against Youngstown State on Saturday, Sept. 5, 2015, at Heinz Field.
Pitt running back James Conner breaks away for a first-quarter touchdown against Youngstown State on Saturday, Sept. 5, 2015, at Heinz Field.
Chaz Palla | Trib Total Media
Pitt running back James Conner breaks away for a first-quarter touchdown against Youngstown State on Saturday, Sept. 5, 2015, at Heinz Field.
Pitt running back James Conner leaps over Alex Bookser during a first-quarter run against Youngstown State on Saturday, Sept. 5, 2015, at Heinz Field.
Chaz Palla | Trib Total Media
Pitt running back James Conner leaps over Alex Bookser during a first-quarter run against Youngstown State on Saturday, Sept. 5, 2015, at Heinz Field.

Pat Narduzzi isn't a doctor, but he knows what it is like to be a father and a coach.

His experience in those positions led him to believe the best thing for junior running back James Conner is among the worst things for the Pitt football team: season-ending surgery on the torn MCL in Conner's right knee.

The words carry such a dreaded, definitive feel that Narduzzi had a difficult time getting them out Monday during his weekly news conference. He said he didn't plan to talk to his assembled players about it until Tuesday, allowing Conner to tell his teammates in his own way in the weight room.

“It's tough to say,” he said. “It's hard to believe.”

But Narduzzi said he had no problem coming to the conclusion that Conner needs to get the torn medial collateral ligament repaired immediately, regardless of the ramifications to the team.

Surgery is scheduled this week and will be performed by Dr. Volker Musahl, medical director at the UPMC Center for Sports Medicine. Musahl also performed knee surgery last year on Pitt center Artie Rowell.

MCL injuries typically heal between one to two weeks and four to six weeks, Charleston, S.C., sports medicine specialist and knee surgeon Dr. David Geier said.

That timetable would allow the MCL to heal nonsurgically and give Conner, the reigning ACC Offensive Player of the Year, a chance to return before the end of the season.

Narduzzi, however, said such a plan wasn't considered.

“There are different ways to deal with it,” he said. “When you look at it for his sake and his health, doctors make that call. Ultimately, James makes that call. Certainly, it's not a coach making that call.

“As a coach and a father, (for) his best interests and his future, he needs to get it repaired now.

“They could brace it up for five or six weeks and see how it works, and (Pitt could) lose him for half a season, but I don't think that's right for him, as a player and his future. He's a guy who wants to play. If he could tape it up and go, he would.”

Narduzzi added, “There's no question what the right thing to do was.”

Geier, who has no first-hand knowledge of Conner's situation, said surgery “makes sense for a running back” because of the cutting and lateral motion required of players at that position.

Often, linemen who suffer such injuries are able to return in the same season.

Conner was hurt Saturday during a 9-yard run for a first down early in the second quarter of the season opener against Youngstown State. He left the game after that play and did not return, finishing with 77 yards and two touchdowns on eight carries.

After coming off the field, Conner remained on the bench area, interacting with teammates and telling Narduzzi, “Coach, I'm fine.”

But further evaluation of the injury Sunday revealed a different prognosis.

Geier said standing on the injured knee for the remainder of the game probably wouldn't have caused further damage.

“Usually, that's not a real big deal with the MCL, as long as you avoid side-to-side motion,” Geier said.

Rowell said he didn't see the play that caused the injury, but he knows what Conner is experiencing. He tore his ACL at Boston College a year ago to the day.

“James is upset,” Rowell said. “Personally, I know how he feels. It's challenging. You work so much. You put so much effort and energy into on-the-field and off-the-field preparation, and it's all taken away from you in one moment.”

Rowell said he believes Conner has the requisite mental makeup to deal with the surgery and the period of rehabilitation.

“It all starts with the belief that you will come back better, stronger, faster. You just have to believe in it.”

Rowell called Musahl “the best surgeon in the country for the knee.”

Conner, a junior, will be eligible to enter the NFL Draft next year, but Narduzzi declined to speculate beyond this season.

“Next year is way ahead,” he said. “There is no time to talk about that right now. He needs to focus on the issue at hand. That will eventually come.”

Geier said, according to a typical four-to-six-month timetable for recovery, Conner may be able to work out for teams if he decides to enter the draft.

Conner was unavailable for comment, but he did release a statement.

“I greatly appreciate everyone's support and well wishes,” he said. “This is a temporary setback, and I'm going to work even harder to bounce back. Even though I won't be able to play this season, I'm going to be right beside my teammates and help them every way I can to have a great season.”

Conner is the third Pitt player to suffer a season-ending injury this year, joining offensive right tackle Jaryd Jones-Smith (knee) and backup running back Rachid Ibrahim (Achilles tendon).

Pitt was able to endure the loss of Conner on Saturday after third-string running back Qadree Ollison, a redshirt freshman, ran for 207 yards. Chris James, who ran for 437 yards and four touchdowns last season, also was hurt during the game, but Narduzzi said he expects him to play Saturday at Akron.

This week's depth chart lists Ollison first and James second.

The news was especially difficult for Conner's family members who released a statement Monday.

“As you all might imagine, the news that James has suffered a season-ending knee injury has left us with very heavy hearts. James had such high hopes for this season, but we feel very confident that this is just a small setback for James.

“He will handle his recovery and rehabilitation with the same determination and force that he has displayed on the field. We know that James is in great hands with the training and medical staff at Pitt and we are already counting the days until he can run the ball as a Panther once again.”

Contacted in Florida where he serves in the Air Force, Conner's youngest brother Michael said, “God's got a plan. Roll with the punches. It will work itself out.”

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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