Running backs are tasked with one of the most taxing jobs in the NFL, often bearing the brunt of physically imposing defenses that have been forced by rules changes to back off quarterbacks and wide receivers.
Some backs coming out of college are better built for the gauntlet than others. Perhaps no one in this year's draft class is as ready for the rigors as Pittsburgh product James Conner.
"I ask the coaches, 'What do you guys want in a running back?' They want a tough guy," Conner said. "My mental toughness and my physical toughness, I feel, is second to none.
"I've been through so much, and I think I'm more determined than any running back in this class and just willing to make sacrifices and do whatever it takes."
Conner was the one doling out the physical punishment as a sophomore in 2014, when he bulled his way to 1,765 yards and an ACC-record 26 rushing touchdowns to earn conference player-of-the-year honors. The 2015 season opener, however, brought with it a season-ending knee injury. Then. during rehab that December, Conner was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma, the same form of cancer that Chiefs safety Eric Berry had been diagnosed with a year before.
Without struggle there is no progress.. pic.twitter.com/eKCd4XXaP4 — James Conner (@JamesConner_) February 26, 2017
Like Berry, Conner fought his way back for the next season, topping 1,000 yards in 2016. He arrived at the NFL Scouting Combine a month ago with another clean scan received the previous week.
"I really just had that goal to be an NFL player, so during treatments, this was on my mind, getting closer to my dream," Conner said. "I've been overcoming the odds my whole life."
Many believe the Panthers could target a running back early in the draft, with fellow ACC back Dalvin Cook of Florida State among a trio (with Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey) considered first-round possibilities. But more toward the middle rounds, Conner is among a handful of ACC alums at the heart of the draft's running back depth, a group that includes Wayne Gallman (Clemson), Matt Dayes (N.C. State) and T.J. Logan and Elijah Hood (North Carolina).
"I think the ACC is a top-of-the-line conference," said Conner, whose two touchdowns helped Pittsburgh hand national champion Clemson its lone loss last season. "There are no slouches; you have to bring it. Obviously, it's the best of the best, so playing in the ACC I definitely feel is going to translate to my play to the NFL."