Conner, Panthers expect emotional opener vs. Villanova

BY foxsports • September 2, 2016

PITTSBURGH (AP) The jitters will be there. After what Pittsburgh running back James Conner has been through over the last 12 months, how could they not?

So forgive the 2014 ACC Player of the Year if he takes a moment before running out of the tunnel and onto the Heinz Field turf on Saturday when the Panthers host Villanova in the 2016 opener. A knee injury that derailed his junior season and a cancer diagnosis that threatened to derail his promising career has a way of putting things in perspective.

''I'm just going to embrace it all,'' Conner said. ''I know we will have a great audience. It will be a memorable day. My doctor will be in the building, along with some of the nurses. My family and friends will be there, along with my friends from Erie, so it's just going to be a great day.''

Yet Conner also understands the jitters will fade. They always do. Once he takes a handoff from Nate Peterman it will back to business as usual: trying to help the Panthers take another step forward one punishing yard at a time.

''I'm excited to make my return,'' he said. ''I take every game the same. There's a job that needs to be done.''

One Pitt and second-year coach Pat Narduzzi believe is far from finished even after a promising 8-5 season in 2015, one the Panthers gamely soldiered through even with Conner watching from the sideline for all but the first two quarters of the opener against Youngstown State.

Narduzzi has a better feel for the program now, one that is trying to embrace its history while forging ahead at the same time. The Pitt script logo - a symbol of the Panthers' glory years four decades go - is back in full effect, joined by a variety of uniform options that seem to be de rigueur in college football these days.

Of course, the plan is to have plenty of substance to go with all that style, with Conner leading the way. Some things to look for as the Panthers begin a season with lofty expectations, against a team hoping to make a statement of its own:

CLOSE CALLS: Narduzzi's tenure began with a shaky 45-37 win over Youngstown State last September, a game that remained in doubt until the fourth quarter. The memory remains fresh, so don't expect Pitt to peek around the corner at a long-awaited visit from Penn State on Sept. 10. That's probably wise against Villanova, a longtime FCS power who is hardly a pushover. The Wildcats have been a tough out against FBS schools in each of the last three openers, all losses by 10 points or less.

SAYING GOODBYE: The 2016 season will be the 32nd and final year for Villanova coach Andy Talley, whose 249 career wins are the most by an active coach at FBS or FCS level. Talley, who led the Wildcats to the 2009 national title, will hand the program over to assistant Mark Ferrante. An upset over the Panthers would be a pretty sweet way to begin Talley's send-off.

PLENTY OF HELP: While Narduzzi said there are no limitations on Conner - who underwent six months of chemotherapy to combat lymphoma diagnosed last Thanksgiving - Pitt's depth at running back means Conner won't have to carry the load alone. Qadree Ollison was the ACC Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2015 while filling in for Conner and Chris James provides a speedy yin to the powerful yang provided by Conner and Ollison.

NATE THE GREAT? The Panthers entered 2015 with Chad Voytik at quarterback before Nate Peterman quickly took over the job. There is no drama this time around. Peterman is firmly entrenched as the starter, though he'll also be working with an inexperienced group after Tyler Boyd took his school-record 254 receptions to the NFL. Senior Dontez Ford is the only returning wide receiver with more than 12 career catches.

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