During the 2013 college football season, Paul Chryst and the Pittsburgh Panthers discovered their future in two freshman standouts James Conner and Tyler Boyd. For their freshman and sophomore years, Conner and Boyd provided a great offensive threat against opponents. Conner, a hard-nosed between the tackles power back, led the team in rushing both years and earned himself the ACC Offensive Player of the Year award. Boyd also led the team in receiving both years with his great speed and reliable hands for young quarterbacks Tom Savage and Chad Voytik.
Following two great years of anticipated success, Panther fans were eager for the 2015 season for another year of offensive dominance behind Boyd and Conner. But during all the hype of Week 1, Conner tore his MCL in his right knee after just seven carries. Fans were disappointed but did not know that what was about to happen to Conner may not allow him to play football ever again for the rest of his life. In December, he publicly stated for the first time that he had been diagnosed with Hodgkin Lymphoma, a rare type of cancer disallowing the star running back to take place on the field for the rest of the season. Conner promised fans and himself that he would fight this and to make sure that he would be on the field in the season opener for the 2016 season.
After going through just twelve sessions of chemotherapy, the familiar face for Panther fans led the team through the tunnel for the season opener against Villanova, fulfilling his promise. Conner took place on the field for the first offensive snap of the game. In his honor, quarterback Nathan Peterman handed the ball off to Conner in a play that resulted in a one yard loss. Regardless of the result, Pitt fans erupted in applause for the running back on making his return to the sport that less than a year ago he was not guaranteed ever to play again.
Conner didn’t care how much of an impact he made this year in August. He expressed his feelings to reporters saying his battle was already won and everything else from this point on is extra. He was not expected to play much at the time, since sophomore Qadree Ollison gained the edge in spring after (like Conner) having a standout year as a freshman and becoming the Freshman Player of the Year. Where Conner is at this point in the year is beyond expectations. To even take the field in the season opener was beyond expectations. Yet, here he is, continuing from where he left off two seasons ago plowing through defenses looking at another impressive year. Conner was hands down the offensive captain whether he got the nod to start off the year or not. Conner’s dreams of playing the NFL one day was pushed back a year ago but now he is back in the driver’s seat and says himself that everything felt just like a normal game from week one of his return.
Notre Dame’s Identity
Everyone in the college football world wonders right now about the Irish’s identity. Being preseason ranked tenth in the country, Notre Dame has looked like anything but the tenth best team in the nation. Returning star dual threat quarterback DeShone Kizer alongside running back Tarean Folston who came back after missing all of last year, expectations were high. The Irish did lose many players to the NFL including linebacker Jaylon Smith, receiver Will Fuller, running back CJ Prosise, and defensive back Elijah Shumate. Brian Kelly’s squad did flirt with the opportunity to play in the college football playoffs last year and would’ve if it weren’t for a loss in the last game to Stanford.
Following week six, the Irish stand at a losing record of 2-4. How could a team who nearly made the playoffs last year lose to teams like NC State and Duke? Luck may not be on Kelly’s side as he lost leading returning tackler in safety Max Redfield for the year as he was released from the team over the summer. He also had Torii Hunter come out of the season opener against Texas due to a controversial hit to the head leading to concussion protocols. Hunter did not return for the next few weeks. Weather was also not in favor of Notre Dame in the horrible turnover barrage against NC State featuring both teams and the final score only being 10-3.
Maybe a quarterback change could be made for they do have the 2014 Music City bowl MVP Malik Zaire hopelessly watching from the sidelines. Zaire started the first few games last season before being out for the year. Kizer took over and impressed but the magic may have run out and the switch could flip back to Zaire. Could a switch at tailback occur as well? Folston looks nothing like he used to a few seasons ago and they have sophomore Josh Adams backing him up who was second team Independence last season as a freshman. Any of these events could occur throughout the season if not now (a change at a position even more than quarterback could happen as well).
Though the offense does still seem to be trying to figure out its identity, take a look at the defense. Without captain Max Redfield, all of the Irish secondary is in deep need of help. Besides senior Cole Luke, every other position is occupied by inexperienced backs. Avery Sebastian looks solid as a grad trnasfer from California, but lacks the capability to make solid tackles. Nick Watkins and Shaun Crawford rotate at corner and neither can grasp the job as it is still up for grabs. Filling in for Redfield is the the big dilemma for the Notre Dmae defense right now. Devin Studstill is the main guy, but is currently the big exploitment for opposing offenses. Reserves Robert Regan and Nicco Ferlitta both have little to no experience in the playing field.
Given the early overtime loss to Texas and the shootout loss to Michigan State, Notre Dame could land anywhere at the end of the season between a losing record and barely bowl eligible. I believe that a New Year’s Day bowl is out of the question for Brian Kelly and the most they could see is facing an opponent at the end of the year like Illinois or Iowa (who is another team looking anything like themselves early in the season). The offense has many weapons but can’t seem to get them in the right cannons, and the defense is the complete opposite with few returning players and a lot of room for improvement. The Irish do face off against Stanford on Saturday which could be a key game in the season for both teams to get back on track. Kizer was a Heisman candidate preseason but is looking nothin like that so far. This could be Brian Kelly’s last year, if he lasts through the season.