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James Conner at receiver? It could happen, Pitt says

With running back James Conner back in the fold, Pitt is ready to show off its versatility on offense. Mark Alberti/Icon Sportswire

BRISTOL, Conn. -- It’s been a year since James Conner was on the field for Pitt. When he makes his return -- from both a knee injury and a battle against cancer -- in September, coach Pat Narduzzi says there may be a few surprises in store for defenses.

“We have sets with three running backs on the field,” Narduzzi said. “We may line James up wide.”

It’s a scary scenario for cornerbacks, but it’s one that makes a ton of sense for Pitt, Narduzzi said.

Conner will be atop the depth chart at tailback, but he’s just one of a plethora of runners Pitt has at its disposal.

Last year’s ACC offensive rookie of the year Qadree Ollison, who racked up 1,121 rushing yards in 2015, is currently third on the depth chart. Sophomore Darrin Hall is second, and freshman Chawntez Moss offers some intriguing athleticism. Junior Rachid Ibrahim has ample experience, too, and may not crack the top four on the depth chart.

It’s a wealth of riches, and the way Narduzzi sees it, it’s an asset that needs to be mined.

“Our offense is built about trying to get our best 11 on the field,” Narduzzi said. “There’s so many different combinations. That’s the neat thing about our offense is it’s simple enough that guys can learn where those spots are. There’s a system to it.”

Indeed, new coordinator Matt Canada did a nice job of utilizing his assets at NC State, with a pair of running backs -- Shad Thornton and Matt Dayes -- topping 850 scrimmage yards in 2014, and two others -- Jaylen Samuels and Dayes -- doing the same in 2015.

While Dayes served as a prototype dual-threat back, Conner -- all 240 pounds of him -- doesn’t exactly look the part. Watch him practice, however, and it’s a different story.

“How’d you like to tackle James on a bubble?” Narduzzi said. “Throw him out there and let those corners try to tackle a big guy. And he can catch. He’s not a guy who can’t catch the football.”

Conner has just nine receptions in his career, but that’s potentially just the tip of the iceberg.

Of course, there was plenty of buzz two years ago that Conner might also line up at defensive end after he helped Pitt to a bowl win by playing on defense in 2013. That never quite materialized, but the work at receiver wouldn’t involve switching sides of the ball.

Either way, what’s clear is Pitt will have ample rushing options -- and a big offensive line -- with Conner returning to active duty.

“You use your personnel,” Narduzzi said. “Whoever those players are you want to get on the field, you always have a game plan for getting them the ball.”