Tech coaches prepare for Pitts’ James Conner

Pittsburgh running back James Conner tries to get past Youngstown State Penguins safety LeRoy Alexander on a long run during an NCAA football game in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic, File)

Georgia Tech will face a familiar opponent in Pittsburgh on Saturday that was missing when the two teams faced off last season.

After being named ACC Player of the Year in 2014 when he rushed for 1,765 yards, 26 touchdowns and added on 70 receiving yards, Pitts running back James Conner missed the 2015 season with the Panthers after a knee injury suffered in the season opener and then a diagnosis of Hodgkin’s lymphoma that would change his life.

After working through chemotherapy and rehab on his knee last season, Conner returned to Heinz Field on Sept. 3 nearly a year after his injury and diagnosis. In Conner’s first game back in Pitts’ season opener against Villanova, he seemed stronger than ever — scoring two touchdowns and in the first half and finishing Pitts’ 28-7 win with 69 all-purpose yards.

“We have a lot of respect and a lot of admiration for him,” Tech defensive coordinator Ted Roof said. “We know he’s gonna be ready to play, as well as the whole entire offensive unit, it’s not just him. But with everything he’s been through we have a lot of respect for him and at the same time, we know we got to get ready to play and play our best and most complete football game of the year.”

Conner is the Panthers’ leading rusher so far in 2016 with 381 rushing yards and five rushing touchdowns. He is also the team’s second-leading receiver, with 169 receiving yards and two touchdown catches. Conner averages 4.2 yards per carry and 13 yards per catch in 2016.

Whether in the backfield or acting as a receiver, the Yellow Jackets know the power of the athlete they’re facing.

“I’ve got him in several different roles,” cornerbacks coach Joe Speed said. “We’re very familiar with him from two years ago. He’s a talented athlete, power, speed, finesse, soft hands. He’s the real deal. We definitely have to have an awareness of where he is when he’s on the field.”

The Panthers are coming off a 43-27 win over Marshall on Saturday where they racked up 532 offensive yards, Conner was responsible for 34 rushing yards and one touchdown.

In practice this week, Tech’s scout team alternated three of four players to simulate Conner’s skill set which has averaged 110 all-purpose yards and just over one touchdown per game. As a team in 2016, Pitt averages 250 rushing yards per game.

“That’s the thing with (Pitts’) run game, they’ve got the inside thing with Connor and then they have the outside game with the speed sweep,” Roof said. “It’ll be a big challenge for a defense to try and limit that.”

Tech has allowed an average of 342 offensive yards per game so far this season.

Limiting Pitts’ offensive production on Saturday is more complicated than stopping Conner alone. Sophomore running back Quadree Henderson, like Conner, is one of the Panthers’ top receivers with 158 receiving yards and one touchdown this season. Henderson is also close behind Conner in rushing totals this season with 217 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns, including a 50-yard touchdown run against Oklahoma State.

“You have to have a plan for both (Conner and Henderson) because if you’re going to try to gang up on one, they’re going to exploit the other way,” coach Paul Johnson said. “So you got to be sound on your defensive approach, limit the big plays and hopefully try to create some negative plays.”

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