Getty Images

Report: Former Pitt RB James Conner given clean bill of health

Leave a comment

James Conner will head to next week’s Combine with a clean bill of health, according to a report Thursday from ESPN’s Adam Schefter.

“Pitt RB James Conner, who missed most of 2015 with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, received a clean scan today, a week prior to combine, per source,” Schefter tweeted.

Conner led the ACC in rushing in 2014, rushing for 1,765 yards and 5.92 yards per carry with 26 touchdowns in 2014, before a Hodgkin’s Lymphoma diagnosis caused him to miss all but one game of the 2015 campaign. (And in that one game, Conner still rushed for nearly 10 yards per carry and two touchdowns.)

He battled back to return to the field in 2016, again leading the Panthers with 216 carries for 1,092 yards and 16 touchdowns while finishing third on the club with 21 grabs for 302 yards and four touchdowns.

Conner will compete at the Combine for draft positioning with fellow running backs Leonard FournetteDalvin Cook and D'Onta Foreman, among others.

Pitt hires veteran OC Shawn Watson as Matt Canada’s replacement

Pitt Athletics
Leave a comment

Veteran offensive coordinator Shawn Watson has been hired to become Pittsburgh’s next offensive coordinator, the Panthers announced Thursday evening.

Watson replaces Matt Canada, who followed a trail of Benjamin Franklins to take the same post at LSU.

“Shawn Watson was one of my first mentors in this business,” head coach Pat Narduzzi said in a statement. “He sat me down as a young coach and taught me how to work with wide receivers in my first full-time job at Miami in the early 1990s. Ever since that time, we have always talked about being able to reunite on the same staff again. I’m really thrilled that the time has finally arrived and he’ll be joining us at Pitt as our new offensive coordinator.

“Shawn is, first and foremost, a wonderful person and father,” Narduzzi added. “As a football coach, he is extremely knowledgeable, an excellent recruiter and will be a tremendous strength in the quarterback room and offensive staff room. I’m really looking forward to having Shawn and his wife Anita join us in Pittsburgh.”

Watson has previous coordinator experience at Colorado, Nebraska, Louisville and Texas, but was demoted after one game in the 2015 season in Austin and pushed off Charlie Strong‘s staff at the conclusion of that season. He spent the 2016 campaign as a quality control assistant at Indiana.

“I am tremendously honored and excited to join the staff at Pitt and be part of what Pat Narduzzi is building there,” Watson said. “Pat is one of my closest and dearest friends. I’ve known him for a very long time and have always admired the passion and energy he brings to coaching and teaching. Pat and his staff have accomplished so much in such a short period of time at Pitt. I can’t wait to join them, meet our players and get ready for spring ball.”

He inherits an offense that was one of the most improved nationally, as the Panthers jumped from 56th nationally to 13th in yards per play and 68th to 10th in scoring from 2015-16. That success led Canada to become a Broyles Award finalist as one of the nation’s best assistants and to the LSU job.

But the Panthers are likely due to take a step back in ’17 no matter who calls the plays. Starting quarterback Nathan Peterman graduated, leading rusher James Conner left for the NFL Draft and most of the offensive line leaves the roster as well.

Watson should gel with Narduzzi in terms of tempo. The Panthers have averaged around 65 plays per game over the past two seasons — generally good for around 90th nationally — which is slightly below the 68 snaps Watson averaged in his last two full seasons as a play-caller at Louisville and Texas.

New pro league would help players bypass college, prep for NFL

Getty Images
13 Comments

College football’s talent pool could get a bit shallower if one “in-between” football league comes to fruition.

According to the esteemed Dan Wetzel of Yahoo! Sports, a handful of individuals, including Mike Shanahan, ESPN NFL reporter Adam Schefter and officiating guru Mike Pereira among others, are among a group in the midst of creating what’s being called Pacific Pro Football.  Unlike other pro leagues, however, the PPL wouldn’t look to compete with the NFL; rather, it will look to develop college-aged players in the pro-style aspects of the sport, particularly on offense, and becomes what Wetzel writes is “a place with a preferable set-up for training and identifying potential draft picks.”

Each team in the four-team league, all based in Southern California initially, would consist of 50 players, with those players receiving $50,000 apiece — and full workers’ comp — instead of tuition. The league, which is tentatively scheduled to begin play in 2018, would also offer tuition reimbursement if a player wanted to go to a community college. There would be an age limit, with players only permitted to compete up to being four years removed from high school.  Those who have already played a year or two in college would also be welcome, provided they’re not beyond the age limit — someone looking for a non-NFL option for his fifth year would not be permitted to play in the PPL.

As for the financial particulars, Wetzel writes that “[a] round of angel funding recently closed and additional funding efforts are possible.” There’s also hope that a media rights deal could be reached as the group includes former ESPN and FOX Sports executives.

If the league is ultimately launched, the season would consist of a maximum of eight games (six regular season, up to two playoff games) and be played on Sundays in July and August. The following, from Wetzel’s report, though, will likely most raise the interest of those in the NFL charged with procuring talent:

  • Each team will have eight full-time coaches with pro and college experience, plus about eight part-time assistant coaches.
  • Play will be pro-style, and based on development and evaluation. For instance, there will be no spread offenses. Quarterbacks will take snaps under center, need to call plays in the huddle and identify defenses at the line of scrimmage. There will be a premium put on one-on-one plays to get viable tape. For example, perhaps rules that prohibit crossing routes for receivers.

Also of interest to the NFL?  None of the practices will be closed as is the case at some colleges, although most of the successful programs provide extensive access to NFL personnel any way.

Non-qualifiers coming out of high school who would normally go the junior college route before heading to the FBS level would seemingly be prime candidates to join the league.  Because of NCAA bylaws, however, they couldn’t go from the PPL back to college football because they would’ve been paid to play the sport.  The league could also be a landing spot for players who find themselves with academic or even legal issues after beginning their careers at the collegiate level.

Wetzel himself acknowledges, though, it would have little effect on big-time college football.

It certainly won’t be the preferred option for every player. The majority of the best college-age players seek the glamor and excitement of the collegiate game.

No one thinks it will topple, or even adversely impact major college football. Certainly, there will be a few less players, but Alabama or Clemson isn’t under any threat of needing to shutter its program.

One of the biggest impacts this league, if it actually launches and is even mildly successful, could have: drive college coaches back toward more of a pro-style offense and away from the spread offenses that have somewhat leveled the playing field all across the sport.  In its never-ending quest to find the unicorn also known as a serviceable quarterback, let alone a franchise one, the NFL will leave no stone unturned.  One of the biggest issues the NFL faces is trying to project how a successful spread quarterback will translate to the pro game.  If a quarterback has spent the previous three years being tutored by former pro coaches on the pro-style game, why wouldn’t the NFL at least give them the same look they give a successful college spread quarterback?

And why wouldn’t the quarterbacks themselves seek out a route to the NFL that wouldn’t have them learning a spread offense for 3-4 years before having to unlearn it?  Conversely, there’s no replacement for steeling and improving yourself against high-level competition, so that would be something both the player and the pros would need to factor in as well.

Another potential impact, if the league were to thrive and grow beyond its Southern California roots? Creating a bigger gap between the Power Fives and Group of Fives by siphoning off talent. By and large, the big names in the high school recruiting game will still go the collegiate route and opt for big-name programs; it’s the shallower end of the talent pool, the recruiting fields the G5s harvest, that would potentially be drained by the PPL.  Three four-team “pods” — Southern California, Northern California, Midwest — with 50 players each means 600 highs schoolers who may otherwise be available to FBS programs would suddenly vanish and have an effect on the G5s’ recruiting bottom lines as the P5s will still get theirs.

All of that, and the effect it would have on the FCS hasn’t yet been mentioned, either.

There is another potential game-changer, if the league is successful and puts players in the NFL causing the salaries to jump from $50,000 a year to, say, $100,000. Or even $150,000  Then, Houston… and Alabama… and Florida… and campuses all across the country, the college football game could have a problem.  That, of course, is a long way down the road, but this league and what if any viability it may have is certainly something to keep an eye on if you’re a fan of the sport.

Justin Jackson’s career day helps Northwestern nip No. 23 Pitt in Pinstripe Bowl

Getty Images
1 Comment

If you’re a fan of Northwestern football, go ahead and send all of your thank you notes and/or cards to Justin Jackson, c/o NU athletics.  Although, you could save some for the secondary as well.

Thanks in very large part to Jackson’s career day, Northwestern (7-6) was able to hold off No. 23 Pittsburgh (8-5) and stake its claim to the 7th annual New Era Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium with a 31-24 win.  The victory was the Wildcats’ first in a bowl game since 2012 and just the third ever since the program was established in 1892.

And, again, thanks be to Jackson.  The junior running back gashed the Panthers defense for 224 yards and three touchdowns on 32 carries.  His previous career-high was 188, set in a mid-October win over Michigan State earlier this season.

Jackson was part of a back-and-forth second half, with the lead changing hands four times in the last two quarters after the Wildcats had taken a 14-10 lead into the halftime locker room.  What turned out to be the final lead change didn’t involve Jackson, though, as Clayton Thorson connected with Garrett Dickerson for a 21-yard touchdown pass on a fourth and one with 8:23 remaining in the fourth quarter to give the Panthers a four-point lead.

On the first play of the ensuing possession, Quadree Henderson, playing in pace of the injured James Conner, fumbled the ball back to the Wildcats at the Panthers’ 27-yard line; four plays later, a Jack Mitchell 37-yard field goal extended the lead to seven.

Pitt’s second-to-last chance to tie the game nearly ended in a touchdown but for a tremendous defensive play in the end zone and instead came to a halt on an interception tossed by Ben DiNucci, who prior to this game had never attempted a pass at the collegiate level.  The redshirt freshman was in the game because starter Nathan Peterman sustained a third-quarter head injury and didn’t return.  Conner suffered the same fate on the same type of injury in the same quarter.

Another DiNucci interception with 1:22 left sealed the Panthers’ third consecutive bowl loss.  The 24 points were the fewest for a Pitt offense this season that came into the game 11th in the country in scoring at 42.3 points per game.

Interestingly, with Pitt’s loss, ranked teams are off to an 0-3 start to the bowl season.  The Big Ten is 2-1 this postseason, while the ACC suffered its first loss after winning its first three.

Red-zone stands, Justin Jackson push Northwestern to halftime lead on No. 23 Pitt in Pinstripe Bowl

Getty Images
1 Comment

Northwestern’s defense bent to the point of breaking but (mostly) never snapped, leading the Big Ten school to a surprisingly defensive 14-10 halftime lead on No. 23 Pittsburgh in the 7th annual New Era Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium.

Already up 3-0 late in the first quarter, Pitt was looking at a fourth and goal from the Northwestern one-yard line that if successful would’ve extend its lead to two scores.  Instead, leading rusher James Conner was stuffed for no gain, with the Wildcats flipping that turnover on downs into a 10-play, 99-yard drive that was aided greatly by a 68-yard Justin Jackson run and capped off by Jackson’s eight-yard touchdown run.  The junior running back accounted for 88 rushing yards by himself on that drive.

The Panthers, though, seemed poised on the ensuing possession to regain the lead.  On a second and goal from the 10-yard line following a false start penalty, however, Nathan Peterman was picked off by the Wildcats’ Godwin Igwebuike with just under 13 minutes remaining in the second quarter.  Pitt’s defense, though, returned the favor, with Avonte Maddox intercepting a Clayton Thorson pass in the end zone five minutes later to snuff out a Wildcats’ scoring opportunity.

The Panthers’ offense could do nothing with the gift, handing the ball right back to the Wildcats on a three and out.  Eight plays and 74 yards later, another Jackson touchdown run, this one from 16 yards out, pushed the lead to 14-3 with just over three minutes remaining in the half.  In addition to scoring both touchdowns, Jackson ran for 147 yards on his 18 carries.

On the next possession for Pitt, however, it was the big play that got the Panthers back into the game, with Peterman hitting Jester Weah on a beautifully-thrown 69-yard touchdown pass just 17 seconds after the Wildcats’ second score.

The fact that the Wildcats held the high-scoring Panthers to a mere 10 points through two quarters was, along with Jackson’s play, the story of the first half.

Pitt came into today’s game 11th in the country in scoring at 42.3 points per game.  The Panthers scored at least 36 points in 10 of 12 regular season games, and in the other two they scored 28.  In their regular-season finale, they scored 76 points in a win over Syracuse.

Despite the relative lack of points, both teams moved the ball relatively well.  Northwestern finished with 294 yards of total offense, Pitt 264.  The Panthers came into the game averaging 447.5 yards per game while the Wildcats are less than 100 yards away from hitting their seasonal average of 392.9.

Having deferred after winning the pregame coin toss, Pitt will open the second half on offense.