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Panther Hollow Presents The Freshman 15: Converted Backs To Back Up Bennett

By Matt Popchock
Rachid Ibrahim, James Conner

(Photos Courtesy Of 247Sports)

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PITTSBURGH (93-7 THE FAN) — About the only visible progress made by Pitt tailback Isaac Bennett since his injury last week is he’s been wearing a brace on his right knee that makes him more ambulatory.

This means go time for pure freshmen James Conner and Rachid Ibrahim, each of whom were recruited to play defense, only to later return to his natural position. It also means the next installment of our special “Freshman 15″ series will spotlight both.

When we first met Conner (6’2″, 230 lbs.), as the de facto featured back in McDowell head coach Mark Soboleski’s offense last fall, he was an unfortunate victim of North Allegheny’s run to a second PIAA Class AAAA title in three years. However, the Trojans’ blowout loss to the Tigers Nov. 30 at Seneca Valley High School did not delete his outstanding resume.

He had already made the Pennsylvania Football News’ All-Class AAAA Team as a junior defensive lineman while establishing a school record with 17 career sacks, and he graduated from McDowell as the No. 21 overall prospect in the Commonwealth according to 247Sports, and one of the top 30 weak-side defensive ends in America according to Panther-Lair.com. But in his senior season, injuries inspired Soboleski to try him at running back, and Conner never looked back.

Although Pitt envisioned Conner in its defensive front in the foreseeable future, offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph and assistant coach Desmond Robinson liked him out of the backfield so much a positional swap was ultimately made. Conner ran for 1,680 yards and over 20 scores in 2012, averaging a first down per carry and setting another Trojans record with 164 total points last year.

Once again, he earned all-state honors, this time for his offensive efforts. Now, with Bennett in recovery mode, Ray Graham in the NFL, and Rushel Shell in Morgantown, the timing of Conner’s arrival seems impeccable.

“Coach always tells me to be ready, so I know that the reps will come,” he said after morning practice on the South Side. “I’ve just got to make them count so when I’m in there, it’s my time to shine. I’ve just got to do what I’ve got to do.”

“He’s learning. Mistakes aren’t necessarily bad because you can learn from them,” head coach Paul Chryst said. “There’s still things he’s got to keep cleaning up. We’re all in that boat.”

Nevertheless, it’s hard to picture a young man of Conner’s nature not in good graces with Chryst, who seeks recruits who love the game and the school unconditionally. If you’ve followed the Erie native on Twitter (@jconner__) since he came to town for spring drills, you’d think he could intern with the Visitors Bureau at will.

“I’ve enjoyed the time a lot. College football is a different experience. There have been times that I have been, like, ‘Aw, man, this is tough.’ But Coach Chryst and his staff, my teammates, they are all awesome,” Conner crowed when asked about the hardships of his first collegiate camp. “The Class of ’17 I came with, they’re great. So I’m just going to continue to work hard. This is tough, but I love Pitt.”

The toughest part for him has been becoming a student of the game–studying film routinely, and running more with his mind than with his gut. Working daily against a talented defense that may only get better is as good a reason as any for Conner to build his own strength while he labors toward, hopefully, a big debut against No. 11 FSU on Labor Day.

“It’s hard, because I know our defensive line so well, so the big runs aren’t really happening right now. I know they’ll happen during game time, but right now I’m just paying attention to details and working to build my confidence up,” he said.

“I love the way he’s approaching everything,” Chryst said, smiling. “He’s certainly earned the right to get more reps.”

Ibrahim (6’1″, 185 lbs.), like Conner, was a jack of multiple trades in high school, and impressed Pitt with his versatility. Furthermore, like Conner, he’s had to earn every bit of attention he’s drawn as one of the pleasant surprises of training camp.

The Rockville, Md. native excelled as an athlete and safety at The Avalon School in Bethesda, Md., setting a program record with 4,835 career rushing yards en route to his third consecutive CAFC (Capital Area Football Conference) offensive MVP award. Earlier this summer he represented his state–and lined up against a couple of fellow Panthers in the process–in the Big 33 Classic at Hersheypark Stadium.

But he didn’t go there with the same expectations as other top commits, and he wasn’t even courted by Pitt until last fall when the program decided it wanted to add to its secondary. Ibrahim planned to come here after receiving offers from Iowa and ACC inter-divisional rival Boston College.

Then, plans changed earlier this summer, when Chryst and Rudolph decided to shift him to the ground game, and with plans to give Bennett the ball still up in the air, Ibrahim has to be ready alongside Conner.

“It’s been a lot of fun. You’ve got to keep working hard, and we’re just trying to get in there and carry the load,” Ibrahim said. “I think I have a good grasp of the playbook. I’ve got a lot of thinks to clean up and define, but I’ve got a grasp of what we’ve done so far.”

He may be having fun getting those extra reps, but that is not to say they’ve been easy ones. If Bennett returns in the next week or so, Conner stays his course, and/or redshirt sophomore Malcolm Crockett picks up his game after getting some looks in the Compass Bowl back in January, they will disappear quickly.

The thing he feels he has yet to grasp is pass protection, which may come a little easier to Conner, the physically superior of the two freshmen. If Ibrahim is to succeed under Chryst, whose successful offenses at Wisconsin were rooted in teamwork blocking and offensive line play, it is a prerequisite.

“It isn’t high school anymore. We get a lot of tests from our defense. [Offensive line] Coach [Jim] Hueber lets us know we have to play off the D-linemen,” Ibrahim explained. “We have to pay attention to what they’re doing so we know where to go. You’ve got some big guys coming at you, so you’ve got to be able to pick up pass protection…or I won’t see the field at all. The coaches have to trust you.”

But if he, who also owns a school scoring record, can add to the bottom line of an offense that ranked beneath the FBS curve with 26.2 points per game, trust will be gained like rushing yardage.

“You’ve just got to come out with the right mindset, and stay focused, and fight for your teammates,” he said of the running back battle. “I look over, and I see my teammates, and I say, I’ve got to do it for them. It’s a grind, but it’s going to pay off.”

(Contact me at mpopchock@kdka.com and/or follow me on Twitter @mpopchock.)