By Nick Shook
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James Conner hit headlines when his jersey was declared the highest-selling among rookies this summer. With Steelers camp underway, the rookie’s star keeps rising.
Conner is getting plenty of carries with Le’Veon Bell absent from camp, and the runner with local ties and a battle with cancer under his belt is turning heads in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. NFL Network’s Aditi Kinkhabwala reported everyone in the Steelers‘ organization has been really pleased with the new arrival, and that was before the pads had been put on.
Enter Sunday, the first day of hitting.
“He’s got a reputation that he doesn’t back down from physical confrontation, and I wanted to give him an opportunity to confirm that on Day One,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said of Conner in a Sunday interview with NFL Network’s Ike Taylor. “He did in a lot of ways. He’s a highly competitive guy, he showed some good technical things. Obviously, it’s Day One, he’s got a ways to go. His mental approach and demeanor is what we desire.”
Conner is obviously not Bell, and we’re not saying he’ll usurp one of the league’s best running backs. But half of the battle for rookies is answering when opportunity knocks, and Conner is apparently doing that about as early as possible.
Plenty of Pittsburgh’s success in recent years has been dependent upon the effectiveness of the running back below Bell on the depth chart. For the last two years, that tailback was De’Angelo Williams. It’s been a consistent theme dating back to the mid-2000s for Pittsburgh, with Willie Parker emerging from behind Jerome Bettis en route to a Super Bowl XL triumph, and later, Mewelde Moore filling in for a banged-up Parker as Pittsburgh took home another Lombardi in Super Bowl XLIII.
It should be comforting, if anything, for Steelers fans to know that when Bell returns (it’ll happen eventually), Pittsburgh will also have a bruiser in Conner ready to spell him. In the meantime, the alternative doesn’t sound too bad.