Pittsburgh running back James Conner will miss the rest of the 2015 season after suffering a torn MCL in the Panthers season opener against Youngstown State on Saturday.
The school confirmed that Conner will need surgery to repair the damage, and the recovery process is expected to keep him out for the entire season.
“Even with all of his success last year, James attacked his preparation for this season like he was fighting to earn a starting spot,” Pat Narduzzi said Monday. “He is a tremendous competitor and teammate. After he was injured on Saturday, James was constantly in the ear of his teammates, encouraging them and coaching them on the sideline. Our entire program shares his disappointment but we will also be behind him every step of the way in his recovery.”
“I greatly appreciate everyone’s support and well wishes,” Conner said, via a statement released by the school. “This is a temporary setback and I’m going to work even harder to bounce back. Even though I won’t be able to play this season, I’m going to be right beside my teammates and help them every way I can to have a great season.”
Here are three things to know about Conner's injury and what it means for Pitt:
1. This is a bummer for Conner. Conner has been a do-everything player for Pitt, even making contributions on the defensive side of the ball, during a brilliant two years with the Panthers. Conner has broken Tony Dorsett's bowl rushing record and Tony Dorsett's single-season school records for touchdowns and points. Last season, Conner was named the ACC Player of the Year and this year he was on the short list to watch for all the prominent individual honors: Heisman Trophy, Walter Camp, Doak Walker and the like.
2. This is the second setback for Pitt at running back. Rashad Ibrahim was already ruled out for the season last month, so now Pitt is down two running backs. Luckily, the Panthers have some good depth at that position. Sophomore Chris James has been a little banged up, but it is expected he will move up into the starter's role. Keep your eye on freshman Qadree Ollison as a player that could benefit from seeing more time. Against Youngstown State, Ollison popped off 207 yards and a score on just 16 carries.
But even with the depth and options at running back, losing Conner is still a huge setback for Pat Narduzzi in his first year with the Panthers. Having a reliable back like Conner made the entire offense better. The attention Conner demanded opened up the offense for Chad Voytik and Tyler Boyd to shine as well, and it helped the entire offense take a step forward last season.
3. Up next: questions about Conner's future. Pat Narduzzi said Monday that now is "not the time" to talk about Conner and the NFL, but the question isn't going away. CBSSports.com has Conner listed as the No. 5 running back in the 2016 NFL Draft class and currently projects the Pitt star to be a second or third round pick.
Depending on the severity of the injury and length of recovery, Conner could still be in the mix for that kind of projection by the time next spring rolls around. But in this case I'd expect Conner to stick to his word and focus on helping the team this fall before addressing his future at the end of the season.