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Pitt running back Conner focused on team goals in 2015

Jerry DiPaola
| Sunday, July 19, 2015, 10:30 p.m.
Pitt's James Conner leads his teammates on to the field at the start of the Blue-Gold spring game Saturday, April 18, 2015, at Highmark Stadium.
Sidney Davis | Trib Total Media
Pitt's James Conner leads his teammates on to the field at the start of the Blue-Gold spring game Saturday, April 18, 2015, at Highmark Stadium.

His head held high, Pitt's James Conner walked with purposeful strides across the stage on the night he was celebrated as 2014 ACC Player of the Year.

He accepted the trophy — gracious and humble as ever — but he made a vow for this season.

“No individual goals,” he said.

That ACC awards ceremony was held on a Friday, one day before the conference championship game between Florida State and Georgia Tech. Pitt wasn't playing after finishing tied for third in the ACC Coastal Division, and that absence hurt more than his own honor felt good.

“I wanted to stay there and play the game,” Conner said.

That's why, when Conner and teammate Darryl Render meet with reporters Monday and Tuesday at ACC Media Days in Pinehurst, N.C., the bar will be set higher and wider. The goals will be ambitious and centered around the team.

“Everytime we break it down (after practice), we say ‘ACC champs,' ” Conner said. “But it's going to take more than saying it. We have to do it.”

Some preseason forecasts list Conner as a Heisman Trophy candidate after he ran for 1,765 yards, a school-record 26 touchdowns and averaged more yards per game last season (135.8) than any returning Power 5 running back. Conner tries to ignore the noise.

“At the end of the day, I'm the one who has to have tunnel vision, focus in, work harder than I ever have before,” he said.

And that includes doing something the junior back largely wasn't asked to do last season — catch passes in a slightly altered Pitt offense.

Although Conner's 240-pound frame can create matchup nightmares for 180-pound cornerbacks trying to tackle him in space, he caught only eight passes in his first two seasons at Pitt.

Blame former coach Paul Chryst if you want, but Conner would disagree.

“Some of that is on me learning the playbook,” Conner said. “I have to be more trustworthy. It's nobody's fault but my own. I have to be more responsible, learning the protections and learning the routes and picking up blitzes.”

New offensive coordinator Jim Chaney won't be afraid to demand more, especially on passing downs when Conner previously came out of the game.

“I think James has the ability to be a good pass protector,” Chaney said. “My goodness, he's big and he's physical. I think he can do that and stay on the field more regularly on third down.

“James Conner has the ability to do whatever James Conner wants to do.”

The result will be Conner carrying a heavier workload on a lighter frame. He is listed at 240 pounds, down 10 pounds from his 2014 playing weight. He said that's the result of “getting a lot more serious in the weight room … and dieting properly.”

“Eating clean, eating better, trying to get my water in,” he said.

Conner said he also has spoken with former Pitt stars Larry Fitzgerald, Kevan Barlow, LeSean McCoy and Curtis Martin, all of whom found success in the NFL.

“They always told me it's the little details that separate me from the pack,” Conner said. “Staying in on weekends, drinking your water, extra pushups at night.”

Conner hopes to follow those players into the NFL, but in due time.

“Right now, I'm doing everything in my power to get this team to the ACC championship,” he said. “Everything else will fall in place.”

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

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