The Heisman Trophy is awarded every year to “The most outstanding player in college football…whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity.” Seems simple enough to conclude then that the best returning football players in the country would be on the Heisman Trophy watch lists, right? Then something must be wrong. I’ve searched around all of the Top 10 Heisman lists for 2015 with all of the major outlets and there’s one name I was looking for that hasn’t shown up on these lists. That name would be James Conner, junior running back for the Pittsburgh Panthers; and it’s a name that everybody should pay attention to this season. A name that deserves to be on the Heisman watch lists.
Conner is the reigning ACC Player-of-the-Year as he enters his junior year for the Panthers. He won that award last season after running for 1,765 yards, 3rd most in ACC history, and 26 TDs, an ACC record. Conner led the ACC in rushing touchdowns, rushing yards-per-game, and total rushing yards. He was Pittsburgh’s first 1st-Team All-American running back (American Football Coaches Association) since 1987 when Craig “Ironhead” Heyward was bowling over people. The Panthers’ running back was 1 of only 3 sophomores to make that All-American list.
When asked if he thought heading into last season he could win ACC Player-of-the-Year, he responded, “I really did. I told my teammates before the season started that I wanted to win Player-of-the-Year. I told them that the only way it was going happen is with a total team effort. For me to end up winning was a huge deal considering all of the great players in the ACC. But my teammates and I put the work in to make it happen.”
Conner was reminded that the last player to win back-to-back ACC Player-of-the-Year awards was Florida State’s Charlie Ward during the 1993 season. When asked about repeating Conner commented, “I really believe I can win again. I believe in my teammates and my coaches and they believe in me. Together we can make it happen.” Did I mention that when Charlie Ward won his second ACC honor that he also won the Heisman Trophy that year?
Most of the answers he gave at the recent ACC Kickoff event in Pinehurst, North Carolina mentioned his teammates and his university. Pittsburgh has a long tradition of great running backs including Tony Dorsett, Heyward, and Curtis Martin. When asked about being the newest member of that great tradition Conner remarked, “It means a lot to me just to be mentioned with the great running backs that have played here. They’re legends and I’m proud to be part of that tradition.”
Last season Conner broke the Pittsburgh single-season records of rushing TDs, total TDs, and points scored. Those just happen to be records that stood for 38 years. The man who held those records? That would be Tony Dorsett. Did I mention that the year Dorsett set those records he won the Heisman Trophy?
Conner is listed at 6’2” tall and weighs about 240lbs. He has the perfect combination of speed and power in his game, which helped him run for about 6 yards-per-play last season. Panthers’ fans are reminded of Heyward when they watch Conner run over people on almost every play. He is not an easy guy to bring down and opponents hate trying to tackle him. When asked what NFL running back his game resembles the most Conner said Marshawn Lynch. Makes sense because if Lynch is “Mr. Beast Mode” in the NFL, then Conner is definitely college football’s torch bearer of “Beast Mode.”
Duke’s All-ACC defensive back, Jeremy Cash, said, “Conner is the hardest guy to tackle in the ACC, maybe the whole country. It’s just not that fun trying to tackle him.”
The Sporting News called Conner the ACC’s “Best Athlete.” To this point, during Conner’s time playing for the Panthers he’s also lined up on the other side of the ball. He actually played on the defensive line for 10 plays in their bowl game his freshman season and practiced some on the defensive line in every practice last season. Conner said he doesn’t expect to do that anymore but he does hope to expand his skill-set by being more of a factor catching passes out of the backfield. He knows defenses will be “stacking the box to stop me” and feels that adding some diversity to his game will help open things up even more for him. Maybe even open up a way for him to reach the 2000 yard rushing mark. Is that a realistic goal this season?
“I think it’s possible. We’ve worked hard this offseason and I think the sky is the limit to what we can accomplish,” Conner contended.
The accomplishments are stacking up for James Conner as he enters his junior season. The ACC Media gave him the most overall Preseason All-ACC votes, even though Clemson’s Deshaun Watson was voted ACC Preseason Player of the Year for 2015. When you watched the players participate in the ACC media days and interact with each other, it was clear that both players and coaches alike showed a lot of respect towards Conner and there was a definite feeling of confidence in how he carried himself. Those who cover the ACC are clearly aware of his abilities. However, as mentioned earlier, national media outlets like Sports Illustrated don’t even have him listed on their Heisman watch lists.
When asked if he thinks he has hit the national radar he said, “I don’ think so. People in Pennsylvania know who I am and around most of the ACC, but not nationally. But that’s ok. That just makes me want to work that much harder this season. I want to win the ACC Player-of-the-Year award again and if I can do that then maybe people will start to notice.”
Conner has proven himself to be one of the top returning players in the country this season. At Pittsburgh he is majoring in Administration of Justice. Keep an eye on him this season as his running style allows him to deliver his own form of justice to his opponents. If he can repeat last year’s performance and maybe even reach the 2000 yard mark in the process; then justice will be him sitting in New York among the finalists when the Heisman Trophy winner is announced.
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