When it comes to pure inspiration – to say nothing of bolstering the fortunes of Pitt’s football team – the return of running back James Conner can’t be understated.
The Panthers believe Conner, who first battled through a knee and then a bout with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, is close to regaining the form that produced close to 1,800 rushing and 26 touchdowns two seasons ago.
“It's going to be awesome,” quarterback Nathan Peterman said. “Just seeing his work ethic while he still had cancer and was beating it, as well as fighting to be the best player he can still be while he's got cancer, to now where he's completely recovered, trying to get back in shape … It's been awesome to witness that.
“I know it will be a special moment once he gets that first touch, and for all of us to get inspiration from him that first day, really throughout the summer with how great a competitor he is.”
Second-year head coach Pat Narduzzi was asked what he expected to see from Conner – and how soon.
“I guess that's the $100 million question,” Narduzzi said. “I expect nothing but his best performance. When you look at what James has done, what he's been, what he's been through, the size of that heart inside his chest cavity, you know, I think you're going to get his best effort.
“What is that? I don't know. I know when you look at him in strength and conditioning, our program this summer, he's measuring his body up to where it was. Based on our measurements, he's close to prime condition right now. I think he'd like to lose a few more pounds. But we've got him back to where we want to. We still got a couple more weeks to fine tune him.”
Patience will be important, Narduzzi said, no matter how much promise Conner displays early on.
“The important thing with James is just monitoring him through the whole process, making sure that we don't overdo it with him,” Narduzzi said. “That's going to be the job of our training staff, our strength staff, and obviously me as the head football coach.”
2015 In Review
The Pat Narduzzi era at Pitt got off to a strong start as the former Michigan State defensive coordinator guided the Panthers to six wins in their first seven games en route to an 8-5 overall record and 6-2 and second place in the Coastal Division...The Panthers were close to whole lot more, though, as three of their five losses were by seven or fewer points...If not for a 57-yard field goal by Iowa on the final play of its game with the Panthers, there is no telling what might have happened the rest of the year...Pitt accomplished this without the services of 2014 ACC Player of the James Conner, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in the Narduzzi’s debut against Youngstown State...Pitt received big performances from several young players as two of them, RB Qadree Ollison and SS Jordan Whitehead were the Offensive and Defensive Rookies of the Year in the ACC, the first time that one school as won both awards...Ollison ran for 1,121 yards and 11 TDs, while Whitehead showed his versatility, leading Pitt with 109 tackles and also seeing spot duty on offense, averaging 10.2 yards a carry on 12 carries...QB Nate Peterman provided a steady hand in his first season in charge, completing 61.5% of his passes for 2,287 yards and 20 TDs...Big play WR Tyler Boyd led the ACC in receiving with 91 catches and also helped the running game, rushing for 349 and an 8.7 yards per carry average...Boyd was a third-team All-America selection and was joined on the All-ACC first team by DE Ejuan Price, who had 11.5 sacks to finish third in the ACC...Ollison, T Adam Bisnowaty and G Dorian Johnson were named second-team All-ACC, while Whitehead, DT Darryl Render and TE J.P. Holtz were third-team honorees.
The Panthers will only lose seven starters from last year’s team, three on offense and four on defense, but one of them is Boyd, who finished his career fourth on the ACC career reception list with 254 catches in just three seasons...Also missing are Holtz, Render and C Artie Rowell, DE Khaynin Moseley-Smith, LB Nick Grigsby, and CB Lafayette Pitts.
Though Notre Dame and Iowa, a pair of top 10 teams in 2015, leave the schedule, the Panthers will face Penn State, Oklahoma State and Marshall in non-conference play and Clemson rotates in from the Atlantic Division...The game with the Nittany Lions restarts a series which has been dormant since 2000.
The Panthers should be in the thick of competition for the Coastal Division crown with 18 returning starters, eight each on offense and defense, as well as both PK Chris Blewitt and P Ryan Winslow...The availability of Conner, who has had to deal with an offseason battle with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma as well as the knee injury, would be a big plus...Two years ago Conner rushed for 1,765 yards and 26 TDs...But TB is already a strong position for the Panthers with the return of Ollison, Darrin Hall, Rachid Ibrahim and Chawntez Moss...T Adam Bisnowaty, C Alex Offcier and G Dorian Johnson head a veteran offensive line...TE is in the hands of capable Scott Orndoff and Jaymar Parrish...Replacing Boyd, though, will be a difficult task...Dontez Ford, Zach Challingsworth, Jester Weah and Quadree Henderson will be in the WR mix....Defensively, the Panthers should also be better...Late in 2015 Price developed into an elite pass rusher, and he is joined up front by DE Rori Blair and DT Tyrique Jarrett...Former DE Shakir Soto has moved inside to DT...Matt Galambos and Mike Caprara head a linebacker corps that also includes Elijah Zeise, Bam Bradley and Oluwaseun Idowu...The secondary should also be a strength with Avonte Maddox returning to one CB post, and Whitehead, Reggie Mitchell and Terrish Webb manning the safety positions...There will be a fall competition to determine the other CB starter from a among a group that includes Phillipie Motley, Ryan Lewis, Malik Henderson and Dane Jackson.
Numbers & Notes
First - For the first time since the ACC started awarding a Defensive Rookie of the Year Award in 2007, one school claimed both ACC Rookie honors when Pitt’s Jordan Whitehead was named the ACC Overall and Defensive Rookie of the Year and the Panthers’ Qadree Ollison was named the conference’s Offensive Rookie of the Year.
8 - Pitt C Alex Officer is one of eight ACC pivotmen who have been selected to the preseason watch list for the Rimington Award, which is presented annually to the nation’s top center.
8B - Pitt will face eight teams this fall that went to postseason bowl games in 2015, including games with Penn State, Oklahoma State, Marshall, North Carolina, Virginia Tech, Miami, Clemson and Duke.
16 - When Pitt hosts Penn State on the second weekend of the season, the game will mark the renewal of a series which has been played 96 times, but has been dormant for the past 16 years. The two longtime rivals last faced each at Pitt on Sept. 16, 2000, a 12-0 Panthers victory.
36 - RB James Conner has scored 36 touchdowns in just two full seasons of play. He enters this fall as the active career leader in the ACC, despite playing only in last year’s season opener. The ACC career mark for TDs is 52 by Wali Lundy of Virginia.