In 2014, James “Earl” Conner led the nation in broken tackles and scored an astonishing 26 touchdowns. He was the ACC Player of the Year and surpassed Tony Dorsett to set three Pitt records. One year later, Conner would find out his whole life was about to change and he would be no longer fighting for yards but fighting for his life.
3-Star DE by Rivals.com and ESPN / 2-Star RB by Scout.com
McDowell High School (Erie, PA)
DOB: May 5, 1995 (21 years old on draft day)
Conner might be the most polarizing and inspiring college football player to ever hit the field. His incredible journey begins in his hometown of Erie, Pennsylvania. As a junior at McDowell High School, he played defensive end his junior year. According to an article by Brian Hamilton of SI.com, Conner finished the season with 12 sacks and earned All–Class AAAA honors.
In the coming months at Pitt’s summer camp, Conner would earn an offer as a defensive end. In his senior season, he moved back to being a running back; rushing for 1,680 yards and 21 touchdowns. This would be the beginning of what would be an amazing college career as a tailback.
In his freshman year at Pitt, Conner played in 12 games and led Pitt in rushing yards with 799 and eight rushing touchdowns. He averaged 5.5 yards on 146 carries. His sophomore year would put him on the map as one of the best running backs in the country.
Not only did he garner first-team All-America honors, but as previously stated, he would earn ACC Player of the Year and Offensive Player of the year. His 1,765 yards and 26 touchdowns ranked third nationally in rushing touchdowns. He also set the Pitt single-season record for rushing touchdowns, total touchdowns, and points, breaking Tony Dorsett’s records that he held for 38 years according to pittsburghpanthers.com.
The 2015 season would change Conner’s life forever. In the 2015 season opener, Conner tore his MCL in his right knee. This injury was a double-edged sword as it would end his season, but would also lead to a PET scan identifying he was in stage two of Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
An article by Linda Robertson of the Miami Herald explained that during rehab, Conner told his teammates in a meeting that his type of lymphoma was 85 percent curable. In the article, Conner stated “That’s another thing you do when you get cancer: you tell people you’re going to be fine,” he said. “You really never know, though.”
Conner would begin chemotherapy but always remained positive, ensuring that he would overcome adversity no matter what the cost. In February of 2015, he began training with his Panther teammates despite having to wear a mask and having a port in his chest. On May 23, 2015, Conner learned that he was in remission after 12 chemotherapy treatments.
— Pat Narduzzi (@CoachDuzzPittFB) February 13, 2016
After a heroic journey back to health, Conner stepped back onto the football field less than four months following his final chemotherapy treatment. He would prove to be back to form as he rushed for 1,092 yards and 16 touchdowns. He would be named first team All-ACC and his 20 total touchdowns ranked eighth nationally.
Forever Grateful. pic.twitter.com/B8wXA9ABZz
— James Conner (@JamesConner_) December 10, 2016
On December 10, 2016, Conner tweeted “Forever Grateful” as he announced he was entering the 2017 NFL draft. His journey does not get any easier in the NFL, but another recent success story is on his side. Kansas City Chiefs safety Eric Berry was also diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma and made a successful return to the NFL just after nine months of his initial diagnosis. That same year Berry was named to the 2015 Pro Bowl and also named as NFL Comeback Player of the Year. Berry’s success after remission is an inspirational story that proves there is no reason to doubt Conner can be highly successful at the next level.
Power and Tenacity:
Conner doesn’t have a bunch of special skills, but what he does have his power and tenacity. He’s a menace to oncoming defenders and an absolute load to try to take down. As soon as Conner senses contact, he lowers his shoulders and drives his 235 lb. frame to power his way through contact. He rarely goes down on first contact and always falls forward to gain extra yards.
On this play versus UNC, Conner is able to break multiple tackles using very good power through his legs and strategic use of his frame. He shows excellent contact, balance and can elude the last defender using an excellent stiff arm which has become his calling card.
Against Virginia Tech, Conner sends a message as he can break multiple tackles for a good gain. Upon initial impact, he uses an outstanding spin move to evade contact. He shows very good power through his hips and thighs to break three attempted tackles. His upper body strength is also evident as he uses his hands and a quick torso rotation to shake off defenders. His contact balance on this play is very impressive.
On this play, Conner’s quick decisiveness in choosing the proper running lane allows him to gain some momentum and speed. He sees the line of scrimmage very well and processes the development of running lanes quickly. His use of initial upper and lower body gestures deceives the defenders and allows Conner to wiggle his way through traffic. Again, he maintains very good balance despite taking a hit at his knees.
Areas to Improve:
Conner shows some promise as a pass-catcher out of the backfield. He is still raw as a receiver and route runner but shows good concentration and soft hands when asked to catch the ball.
Conner does a good job of using his frame and throwing his weight into blocks. He produces powerful blows with his shoulder to oncoming defenders and can deliver punishing hits while on the move. His hand usage is below average, and his mechanics need fine-tuning, but he’s a willing blocker and has the body to develop into a serviceable blocker in pass protection.
Lack of Burst and Speed:
Conner lacks a quick first step which hinders his ability to gain initial speed upon handoff. He doesn’t have the burst to beat early defensive penetration, which leads to him battling traffic in the backfield. The lack of burst and acceleration has him relying on his blockers and open running lanes far too often for a positive play. His need for a clear path early in the play will be of concern as he enters the NFL. He also lacks the long speed to finish a breakaway run.
Unfortunately, to go along with his lack of burst and acceleration, Conner also lacks loose hips and proper ankle flexion to make sudden lateral movements to elude defenders. He doesn’t have the athleticism to create yards for himself early in the play. He relies on climbing the back of his offensive lineman rather than allowing the play to develop. He also tends to hop into his cuts since he has difficulty sinking his hips and facilitating ankle flexion, in order to plant his foot and accelerate.
James Conner could be a case study when all is said and done. Not because of his ability to overcome adversity, which in itself is respectable, but his resilient nature, high character and outstanding work ethic could pay off in the long run.
Conner lacks some of the key traits that are important for a running back to be successful at the next level. His lack of initial acceleration will really limit what he is capable of doing early in the play development. Speed isn’t extremely important for a running back, but having enough juice in the feet is necessary. Unfortunately for Conner, he doesn’t have the top and speed or even the second gear to break away from defenders.
What Conner does have is physicality. He’s a battering ram and delivers jarring hits to fight off initial tacklers. His stiff arm should be registered as a lethal weapon as he delivers a powerful blow when using it. It is evident that he runs with a chip on the shoulder and his tenacity and mental toughness could make up for his lack of athleticism. He should go somewhere in the middle rounds of the 2017 NFL draft, but I have a feeling an NFL team will be getting a steal when training camp opens.