James Conner has done a whole lot of talking about a whole lot of subjects. He’s getting tired of talking (unless you want to ask him about the blossoming mullet gradually forming from the back of his head, a fact he not only seems to know but to embrace).
The second-year running back has already spent two offseasons being asked about what it means to have the opportunity to take extra reps with the starting offense because the Pittsburgh Steelers’ top running back, Le’Veon Bell, is currently not under contract and does not plan to attend training camp.
“I already answered that”, he began to tell reporters during training camp when the questions started getting monotonous. “Le’Veon here or not, I am focused on trying to prove to myself that I am in shape and I can handle playing and all that”.
The Steelers used a third-round draft pick on Conner last season to groom as the new backup to Bell after they chose not to re-sign veteran DeAngelo Williams. He did not see a lot of playing time during his rookie season, which ended with a torn knee ligament, so he knows that there is still so much for him to show.
Not that he doesn’t believe he did well in certain areas. He is confident in his running ability, for one thing. He rushed for 144 yards on his 32 carries, averaging a healthy 4.5 yards per attempt. It’s a small but efficient sample size.
“All these coaches know—and I know—that I can run the ball”, Conner told reporters when asked why he was focusing on his work in receiving and pass protection this offseason. Not only did the rookie have a healthy rushing average, it was also balanced rather than being skewed by a couple of long outlier runs. His successful run percentage was well within the acceptable range, which is an encouraging sign.
And the fact that he wants to dedicate so much time to improving the areas of his game that are lagging behind is as well. He did not catch a single pass during his rookie season, though he also did not spend many snaps on the field in passing situations. That was decidedly Bell’s territory.
Part of the reason he was generally excluded on those downs was because of a lack of trust by the coaching staff in his ability to contribute in those areas. He is already making strides to change the perception this year. He caught a nice pass for a score during the first installment of Seven Shots of training camp, for example.
Even though he knows he’s in for a backup role, Conner seems to be a man on a mission, a goal set in his sights, and anything that comes between himself and reaching that goal is just another obstacle. It’s great to see the drive with which he is approaching his second season and to watch his growth, both professionally and, to a lesser extent, follically.