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.”
Steelers to Host ex-Vikings OT Aviante Collins for Visit
The Steelers will host free agent tackle Aviante Collins for a visit, according to the NFL transactions page for Thursday.
Collins, 27, spent the last four seasons with the Minnesota Vikings after joining the team as an undrafted free agent out of TCU in 2017.
Collins played in three games in 2017 and two in 2019 for the Vikings, and spent all of the 2020 season on the practice squad, except for a one-week elevation in Week 11, in which he did not play.
The 6-foot-4, 292-pound tackle its a free agent after the Vikings decided to allow his practice squad contract to expire at the end of the season.
The Steelers have several free agents at the tackle position, including longtime starting left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, 2019 starting right tackle Matt Feiler and 2020 starting right tackle Zach Banner, who are unrestricted free agents, and backup Jerald Hawkins, who is a restricted free agent.
The Steelers have Chukwuma Okorafor under contract and Anthony Coyle, Jarron Jones, John Leglue and Brandon Walton signed to futures contract.
Steelers, Zach Banner Donate to Tree of Life Synagogue
Offensive lineman Zach Banner and the Pittsburgh Steelers have pledged a donation to the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill as part of the Steelers 2020 Social Justice Grant program.
The congregation was attacked during a mass shooting own Oct. 27, 2018 that killed 11 people and wounded six others, the deadliest attack ever on a Jewish community in the United States.
The shooting stuck with Banner, who was a rookie on the team at the time. After Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson made an anti-semitic post on social media, Banner responded with a video post.
“We need to understand that Jewish people deal with the same amount of hate and similar hardships and hard times,” Banner said in the video. “I want to preach to the Black and brown community that we need to uplift them and put our arms around them just as much when we talk about Black Lives Matter and talk about elevating ourselves.”
This video is to transition from the incident, and move forward as a community. Not to harp on @DeSeanJackson10 mistake, but to progress by educating ourselves. We can’t move forward while allowing ourselves to leave another minority race in the dark.#Equality pic.twitter.com/MnLnCCYzQL
— Zach Banner (@ZBNFL) July 8, 2020
The video led to Banner becoming something of a fan favorite to the Jewish community.
“Mr. Banner spoke up when others didn’t and we appreciate that,” Barb Feige, executive director of Tree of Life, said to Steelers.com “The fact that he mentioned Tree of Life and the horrific shooting that happened there and how much it impacted him was very meaningful. We are very aware the shooting had an impact beyond our congregation, our Jewish community. The ripple effect was felt. Everybody felt something about it. For Mr. Banner to articulate that, and join our fight against anti-Semitism, was very, very special, very meaningful.”
Report: Steelers to Interview Los Angeles Chargers QB Coach Pep Hamilton
The Steelers have requested to interview Los Angeles Chargers quarterbacks coach Pep Hamilton for their vacant offensive coordinator position, according to a report by Josina Anderson.
Hamilton, 46, just finished his first season as quarterbacks coach with the Chargers, where he helped develop rookie quarterback Justin Hebert, who was named the PFWA NFL Rookie of the Year.
Hamilton has previously been an offensive coordinator at the NFL level with the Indianapolis Colts from 2013-15, where he led a resurgence around quarterback Andrew Luck.
Hamilton was the head coach of the DC Defenders of the XFL in 2020, the assistant head coach and passing game coordinator for Michigan in 2017-18 and was assistant head coach and quarterbacks coach of the Cleveland Browns in 2016. He has also been an NFL assistant with the New York Jets, San Francisco 49ers and Chicago Bears.
Hamilton is the third person confirmed to have interviewed for the position, along with former Cleveland Browns and Oakland Raiders head coach Hue Jackson and Steelers quarterbacks coach Matt Canada, who is expected to earn the position.