With Le'Veon Bell a continuing no-show at Steelers OTAs, James Conner is getting plenty of opportunities to run with the first unit. And that's a big deal for the second-year running back.
Not only is he coming back from an MCL injury that ended his rookie season in early December, he also missed a large portion of the OTA sessions last year with a shoulder injury. He had surgery to repair the MCL in December and hit the ground running this week.
Unfortunately, injuries and Conner became somewhat synonymous in his first season with the Steelers and the 2017 third-round draft pick wants to show he's more than capable of being a player the team can count upon.
"I didn't do anything last year, really, so I've got a lot to prove," Conner told me this week. "My mindset is to earn the respect of my teammates and coaches and compete at the highest level."
Availability is a big part of that.
Conner might not be entirely correct that he didn't do "anything" as a rookie, but he most certainly didn't do as much as a guy who had one of the top-selling jerseys — not just among rookies, but all players — would be expected to accomplish. Of course, a big part of that was because he both played his college football at Pitt and also had returned to the football field following a battle with cancer.
But he suffered a hamstring injury at the team's rookie minicamp that sidelined him throughout the rest of the team's offseason workouts, then sprained his shoulder early in training camp, limiting his playing time in the preseason.
After that, it was a nick here or there that just kept seeming to happen before he sprained his knee in the fourth quarter of a Dec. 17 loss to New England. His season ended with just 32 carries for 144 yards.
He's come back with a new attitude this season and less weight. Conner is listed at 6-foot-1, 233 pounds, but reported to OTAs lighter than that listed weight, though he wouldn't say quite how much weight he's lost.
"I just feel better. I got my knee better. I'm a little lighter than last year. I feel good," he told me. "It was on purpose. I wanted to be in condition out here and be able to run for a long time."
He looks quicker and more agile, as well.
That also might help him avoid some of those nagging-type injuries.
"Every day is an opportunity to get better. Every day I'm trying to grow as a player and a person," he told me.
Especially when he's actually on the field.
• A day after saying, "The first rule of getting better is showing up," when asked about Bell, Antonio Brown skipped Thursday's OTA session. Ben Roethlisberger wasn't there Wednesday or Thursday, either. Guys — especially veterans — come and go at these things. And while many veterans will go 10-for-10 in their attendance, it's not entirely necessary. OTAs are more for younger players to get accustomed to the playbook and each other, or as in the case of a Mike Hilton last season, to try to take a step toward winning a roster spot. — Lolley
• NFL owners didn't vote on the new rules regarding the national anthem protests. But each owner was given an opportunity to speak his mind on the subject at the recently completed meetings in Atlanta. And then commissioner Roger Goodell told the teams what the league's policy would be. That policy is to essentially leave things up to each individual team, so long as they comply with the league's new rules. The Steelers haven't had any players who have knelt and don't expect it to be a problem moving forward. — Lolley
• Mason Rudolph put on a bit of a show on Thursday without Roethlisberger looking on, showing nice touch on a number of passes. He's also showing he's willing to put in extra time. After Thursday's practice, Rudolph and lineman Matt Feiler worked on the quarterback-center exchange. It was good work for both. Rudolph is still learning things such as cadence and taking snaps under center. For Feiler, it was an opportunity to continue work on his versatility. He came to the Steelers as a tackle and added guard to his resume. Thursday marked his first work at center. The Steelers have a need for a player who can do all three of those things after losing Chris Hubbard in free agency. — Lolley
• One interesting thing about Rudolph is that he doesn't call the red zone the red zone. He calls it the score zone. Maybe that will catch on more with the Steelers this year. They ranked 18th in red zone touchdown percentage in 2017. — Lolley
• Ideally, the Steelers would open training camp around 14 days before their first preseason game, which would put their first practice at sometime around July 26. One problem that might arise, however, is that the Westmoreland County Air Show will be held July 28-30 at the Arnold Palmer Regional Airport, which sits across Route 30 from Saint Vincent College. The Steelers draw a lot of fans to Latrobe, Pa., and so does the air show. The official training camp schedule won't be released until June 6, but you can bet if the Steelers report when they generally do, that first weekend is going to be quite crowded. — Lolley
• In response to his recent struggles, Elias Diaz has been working on his throws from home plate to second. Francisco Cervelli is surprisingly one of the best in the majors in throwing out attempted base stealers this season; however, Diaz has committed two throwing errors and has allowed nine stolen bases in 10 attempts. The problem isn't the strength of his arm. Diaz is working on his accuracy, particularly his mechanics on throws from his knees. — Lance Lysowski
• Although Tyler Glasnow has allowed only one run in his last 9 1/3 innings, he's not going to be moved to a high-leverage role anytime soon. A member of the coaching staff made it clear the Pirates don't plan to change how they're using Glasnow. After all, they have a number of options to pitch the seventh and eighth, including Edgar Santana, Michael Feliz and Kyle Crick. — Lysowski
• Opposing pitchers are attacking Gregory Polanco by throwing inside early in the count before getting him out with pitches on the outer half. To combat the strategy, Polanco is focusing on not having his right shoulder and hip turn toward first base too soon. Doing so makes him off-balance for inside pitches. Then, when the pitcher throws outside, Polanco is too focused on shortening his swing for an inside pitch. — Lysowski
• The Pirates have no interest in having Austin Meadows sit on the bench in the majors, despite his hot start since being recalled last week. Meadows missed a significant amount of at-bats the past two seasons because of injury, so there is concern his development could be negatively impacted by sitting on the bench. He wouldn't play over Starling Marte or Corey Dickerson. Plus, Meadows has played only 20 games in right field during his professional career, and Huntington all but ruled out Meadows playing there in the majors. — Lysowski
• Mike Sullivan has as hard a time with Phil Kessel as any coach would. He's a weird dude. Lovable in his own way, but also weird. That said, Sullivan loves nothing more than winning. And Kessel was a big reason the Penguins did their winning this past season. They don't always agree, but there's a mutual respect. They've won championships together. They've brought out the best in each other. Also, Sullivan loves a challenge. He hates being told he can't coach someone, and I can attest unequivocally that he took it personally when it was suggested by some last summer that he couldn't coach Kessel. He did. And he got the best regular season Kessel's ever had. They'll be fine. -- Dejan Kovacevic
• You can add another New England and Boston University product to the coaching ranks in the Metropolitan Division. As expected, David Quinn was introduced Wednesday as the new coach of the New York Rangers. Quinn, 51, is a former BU teammate of Mike Sullivan and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton coach Clark Donatelli in the late 1980s. Quinn had been coaching the Terriers since 2013 when he replaced the legendary Jack Parker, who had guided the program since 1973 and is the third all-time winningest coach in NCAA Division-I history. Quinn said he consulted with Sullivan before jumping ship to New York. Quinn will certainly have his work cut out for him as the Rangers are going through a rebuild after missing the playoffs for the first time in seven years. Quinn takes over for the fired Alain Vigneault, who posted the most wins in the Original Six club’s history. — Chris Bradford
• Sidney Crosby told TSN’s Pierre LeBrun on Thursday that Marc-Andre Fleury has been motivated by being left exposed in last summer’s expansion draft. No one should doubt that. But what about next season and the season after that? Is Fleury, who’ll be 34 in the fall, going to have a chip on his shoulder for years? Doubtful. That’s why keeping a younger, cheaper goalie — who also won two Stanley Cups — always made more sense for the Penguins. End of story. — Bradford
• Patric Hornqvist had his best goal-scoring season in a Penguins uniform with 29, despite Pittsburgh not winning a third straight Stanley Cup. As a consolation, though, Hornqvist helped Sweden to gold at the IIHF World Championship. Hornqvist had two goals in five games for Tre Konor. — Bradford
• With two scholarships remaining for the upcoming season, Jeff Capel will be back to recruiting this weekend after the short dead period that coincides with the NBA Combine. Of note is the upcoming official visit of four-star guard Au’Diese Toney, a 6-foot-6 wing player currently in the Class of 2019. Toney, who is from Alabama but attends Trinity Christian Academy in Capel’s hometown of Fayetteville, N.C., is friends with Pitt signee Trey McGowens and, like McGowens, could reclassify and start college this fall. Toney will begin next week with an official visit to Virginia Tech before coming to Pitt at the end of the week. — Matt Grubba
• It was nearly a great ending for one Pitt basketball alumnus this week, as Brad Wanamaker and Fenerbahçe advanced all the way to the EuroLeague championship game before losing to Real Madrid, 85-80, on Sunday in Belgrade, Serbia. Wanamaker continued to show why he is regarded as one of the best guards in Europe’s top league, posting 14 points, five assists, five rebounds and three steals in the final. In the end, however, his Turkish club was outdone by Madrid and MVP Luka Doncic, the 6-foot-6, 19-year-old Slovenian sensation who could be a top-three pick in next month’s NBA Draft. — Grubba
• Pitt baseball’s march to the top of Pool A at the ACC tournament has been a great story this week, and through the quirks of pool play scheduling, the Panthers got two days off in Durham, N.C., before Saturday’s semifinal. While batting practice and light field work were part of the routine, many of the players were able to take some time away from the team Thursday and spend it with family in attendance. Some others chose to head back to the ballpark as spectators and watch some of Thursday’s three games, which included potential semifinal opponent Duke needing 13 innings to defeat Wake Forest, 6-2. — Grubba
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