PITTSBURGH — Pitt running back James Conner is finishing up his fourth season with the Panthers. But due to a knee injury suffered in the season opener in 2015, Conner is just a redshirt junior.
So he has a choice to make. Rated as a fourth-to-sixth round pick by WalterFootball.com and 17th amongst potential 2017 running backs, Conner certainly has the opportunity to improve his stock by returning for an even-stronger 2017 season.
It’s pretty clear that the beginning of his 2016 season was affected by the chemotherapy treatments he had to endure throughout the winter and spring. In Pitt’s first five games, he average 4.2 yards per carry. In his last five games, that figure is 5.6. There’s also the chance to cement his place in Pitt history, re-write a few more records and take another crack at an ACC Championship.
“If I came back, it would add to the legacy,” Conner said Tuesday after practice. “I hope they retire No. 24 some day. That’s a goal of mine.”
The downside is a painful one that Conner knows all to well. If it wasn’t for the knee injury that cost him 2015, he might already be playing in the NFL.
“It was definitely in my mind that if I was going to have a big year in my true junior year, I would have stepped back and thought about it,” he said.
Conner is 55 yards from his second 1,000-yard season. He’s also added 254 receiving yards this season — more than his first two combined — in an effort to make himself a more well-rounded back.
While Conner has a big decision to make regarding his future, he isn’t in a hurry to make it. He said Tuesday that he would wait until after the season to make his mind up. Right now, he’s focusing on beating Syracuse this Saturday.
“We just want to finish strong, win Game 8, win Game 9 — the bowl game — and then I’ll definitely think about it,” he said. “It’ll definitely be on my mind after that. … “I’m excited for the seniors. I came in with that class. [Matt] Galambos, Shakir Soto, Tyrique [Jarrett], that’s my class. We came a long way. That’s their day. The last time at Heinz Field. They deserve it.”
That’s bucking the current national trend, when more and more underclassmen are deciding to declare early for the draft — and are announcing it even earlier. Four Clemson juniors including quarterback Deshaun Watson announced on Nov. 8 that they would forgo their senior season. That’s something Conner doesn’t see himself doing at this point.
“I just feel that there’s no need for it, really,” he said. “Everybody’s different. I just want to make a smart decision. You know I had a couple issues in the past. I’m just going to take my time and make the smartest move.”