PITTSBURGH —- With top running back Le’Veon Bell absent from the Pittsburgh Steelers’ three-day minicamp that wrapped up on Thursday afternoon, James Conner was thrust into the top spot.
Practicing on the fields behind the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex on the South Side is nothing new for Conner. After all, he did it for years as a member of the Pitt Panthers just next door.
But what is different for Conner is the way he’s feeling: good.
Conner’s first season with the Steelers was cut short by a knee injury suffered against New England on Dec. 17. The injury required surgery and Conner spent the rest of the season on the injured reserve, finishing his rookie campaign with 144 yards on 32 carries in 14 games.
It was “frustrating” end to the year for Conner, who said he’s trying not to dwell on what’s happened in the past, but it’s hard to put aside just much he’s gone through to get to where he is right now.
The beginning of Conner’s first taste of the NFL in 2017 got off to a tough start in the injury department, as well. Conner suffered a minor hamstring injury during rookie camp a year ago that held him out throughout OTAs and minicamp. Then, in August during training camp, he injured his shoulder.
Of course, those came on top of the ailments that Conner battled through at Pitt, with a cancer diagnosis robbing him of much of his strength and stamina as he prepared for his redshirt junior season in 2016 and a knee injury ending his 2015 season during the season opener.
In 2018, Conner is going to be relied upon to be the top backup to Bell, who might miss all of training camp if he and the Steelers are unable to come to an agreement on a long term contact extension.
That will mean more reps and more opportunities for Conner, who hasn’t had the luxury of a healthy offseason since 2015.
“I get more reps, so I’m just trying to get the most of those reps,” said Conner, who added that he’s maintained a close relationship with Bell despite his absence.
In the meantime, it’s about taking advantage of the opportunities that he’s given.
“I’m just trying to grow, learn, learn this playbook, be accountable, earn the respect of my teammates and show them that I’m capable of playing at a high level,” Conner said.
With the amount of his time with the Steelers spent banged up, most of Conner’s growth as a professional has come off that the field, and even for him, that’s made it hard to gauge progress.
“I just know more, but I’m still in the process of growing,” he said “I don’t know if I’ve gotten better yet. I still haven’t done anything on the field, so I guess we’ll see if I got better as the season comes around.”
When training camp comes around, the pads go on, and real football is played, if Conner is still at the top of the running back depth chart, he’ll be able to show how he’s grown since he left one side of the South Side practice facility for the other. Until then, he’s not going to worry about the outside view of how far he’s come.
“I try to put myself in the moment and practice hard,” Conner said. “That’s all.”