There are athletes who inspire others, and then there is James Conner. Athletes like James Conner appear once in a generation, whose influence transcends the confinds of sports; and capable of inspiring an entire nation with their strength and courage. After a successful sophomore season with the University of Pittsburgh, where he rushed for 1765 yards and was once regarded as a potential Heisman finalist, Conner came into his junior year with great expecations. No one would have imagined that this year would change the course of his life.
On December 4, 2015, in front of a packed press conference room, James Conner announced that he was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma; which was discovered while rehabilitating a torn MCL, which occurred in the first game of his junior year. Rather than sit in sorrow, James Conner viewed this as a challenge and decided to approach his cancer in the same way he ran the football; fearlessly and courageously. James Conner endured over 12 rounds of chemotherapy, his last one taking place on May 9th 2016. Even during his treatment, Conner participated in non-contact activities with his Panthers teammates.
By September 2016, a cancer-free James Conner returned to field against Villanova where he rushed for 53 yards on 17 carries and one touchdown. By the end of his senior year, Conner amassed 1092 rushing yards, 17 touchdowns, and was named First Team All-ACC. James Conner's mental resolve and perserverance through his ordeal has made him an inspirational figure for the ages. Make no mistake about it, James Conner is more than just a feel good story, this young man can flat out play football. As with any rookie, Conner has some limitations to his running style which needs to be modified. From the eye test, Conner has all the makings of a player that can start and contribute early for the Steelers.
On paper, James Conner's measurables don't jump at you. One may look at the fact that he ran a 4.65 at the combine, and conclude that he does have the type of speed that would make him an elite running back. On the other hand, one may consider that he ran his 40' time at 6'1, 233 lbs ( in contrast, Le'Veon Bell ran a 4.6 at 230 lbs ), and that he was less than a year removed from his last round of chemotherapy. From viewing him on film, I noted that Conner was a little faster than his 40' time suggested.
James Conner speed vs UNM ( Freshman year )
James Conner speed vs Penn State (Senior year)
From viewing these clips, there were a few aspects about Conner's speed worth noting;
- Conner's speed stayed relatively the same since his freshman year
- Conner seemingly gets faster after contact
- Connor is faster running at an angle than in a straight line.
Agility ( lateral movement )
If there is one glaring weakness with Conner's traditional powerback style, it would be in this area, specifically in lateral movement. Conner is pure north-south power back who is heavy-legged, and possesses very little lateral movement; as a result, the predictability of his style makes him susceptible to being short-circuted by early defensive penetration in the backfield. As pleasing Conner's style may appear on film, it could make susceptible to heavy hits which could potentially affect the lifespan of his career. So the pending question, what adjustments can be made to accommodate his running style and still make him effective?
a) Play Conner as a Receiver
Very similar to Le'Veon Bell, James Conner is a very capable receiver with soft hands. In his senior year, he amassed 302 receiving yards. In open space, Conner is able to display glimpses of lateral movement which he generally does not display when running from single or I formation.
b) Running B and C Gaps
When Conner runs these gaps, he displays a noticeable increase in speed and the ability to make smalls cuts, when he runs the in these gaps.
The word that encapsulates James Conner as a player is power. On film, Conner is as pure a powerback that has come out of the ACC in years. He noted that he modelled his running style from Marshawn Lynch and is certainly true to form. For Conner, every run has the same intention, that being to punish a defense. What was noticeable on film was the variety of ways Conner was able to impose his will. If a defender came at an angle, he would often drop them with a stiff arm; if a defender attempted to get low on him, he would lower his shoulder and hit them with commanding force as demonstrated here against Clemson.
Often, it would take more than one defender to stop Conner in his tracks; one defender alone against Conner was a losing proposition. The clip against Virginia Tech is exemplary of his strength, as he singlehandly takes on four Hokie defenders, while dragging two of them on his way to a hard-earned first down.
Running backs like Conner are the type that give defensive coordinators nightmares. His brand of physicality can be as effective in the NFL, as it was during his college career. If Conner is able to incorporate his power with improvements to his agility and improved instincts, he and Le'veon Bell can potentially be one of the best backfield duos in the NFL.
James Conner is not your average draft pick. The Steelers took a player whose mental toughness and intestinal fortitude has been tested in the highest of stakes, that being his own life. For Conner, it's not about whether or not he can make the final roster. With questions surrounding Le'veon Bell's current and future status with the team, the question whether he is able to contribute immediately. From everything I have learned about James Conner, he is the type of person that you want on your team; he may prove to be one of the most valuable picks the Steelers have had in a long time.