UNITY TWP., Pa. — James Conner had a pretty fantastic sophomore NFL season in 2018.
Conner, unexpectedly handed the starting running back job when Le’Veon Bell never reported to the team, rushed for 973 yard and 13 touchdowns to easily lead the Steelers in both categories.
His 4.5 yards per carry average actually exceeded the mark his predecessor Bell had put down the year before, and at the end of the season, he was selected to play in his first Pro Bowl.
But according to Conner, none of that matters now.
As he enters his third NFL season, for the first time, there’s some stability to Conner’s football life. He’s now nearly four years removed from a cancer diagnosis that nearly derailed his pro career before it started, and had his first healthy offseason as a pro after suffering a knee injury as a rookie in 2017.
He also has a solidified role as the Steelers’ primary rushing threat after having no idea what to expect while Bell waited on the outside last year. He’s even become one of the leaders of a young running backs room.
But he’s not real interested in those things that got him to this place as he enters 2019 training camp at St. Vincent College.
“Nothing that I did last year can help me this year,” Conner said. “No play I made, no touchdown I scored, is going to help me this year. Really, you’ve got to start fresh, start with a clean slate. You’re getting judged every day. So, it’s come to work every day.”
“I agree with what he said,” Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin added. “I am not looking for comfort relative to what he did a year ago. I do find comfort in what I have seen from him through this point in the journey this year. He is highly conditioned and focused. I see the natural growth and the natural maturation that you see in a professional and I like what I have seen from him through the OTAs and so forth and opportunities to run across him this summer.
“Look at him. He is ready to go.”
Yes, look at him:
Friday motivation 😳💪
— Los Angeles Rams (@RamsNFL) March 29, 2019
Conner spent part of the offseason training in Pittsburgh with fellow Pitt alum Aaron Donald. He also spent part of the summer training in the Florida heat.
That’s a far cry from the player the Steelers got when they drafted the Pitt and Erie McDowell product.
Part of drafting a player is figuring out how much potential they have to get better than the player they’ve already shown themselves to be. The key to unlocking that potential is different for every player, but the common denominator is hard work.
It’s abundantly clear that Conner has put in that work. But he’s not resting on that, either.
“I don’t know. I’d like to think so,” he said. “You’ve got to prove it every day.”