James Conner up for the challenge of college teammate Aaron Donald
TEMPE — The Cardinals are only three games in, but running back James Conner is proving to be just what the team had hoped for when Arizona signed him this offseason.
The running back has brought a physical presence to the team’s ground game as he continues to get a feel for what head coach Kliff Kingsbury is running in the desert.
Sunday’s 31-19 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars was a solid example of Conner’s progression in the offense, scoring the first two touchdowns of his Cardinals’ career to go along with 46 yards on 11 carries. He also made an impressive one-handed catch for 10 yards.
It’s a testament to his work ethic.
“Just straight workman’s attitude each and every day,” head coach Kliff Kingsbury said Friday. “Doesn’t say anything, just goes to work. Practices hard, plays hard. I think he’s running really physical, running downhill.
“I think he’s still, obviously, getting accustomed to how we do things here in our offense and our style of play but I thought he really had a nice game last week and I expect him just to get more and more comfortable.”
That physical presence will be needed against a tough Rams defense, headlined by defensive lineman Aaron Donald.
While it’ll mark the first time Conner has gone up against Donald, he knows full well what to expect in the three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year having spent a year together (2013) during their college days at Pittsburgh. That season Donald made 28.5 tackles for loss, 11 sacks and four forced fumbles, career highs as a Panther.
Conner and those around him knew right away they were playing with greatness. That’ll happen when it’s a challenge to run inside each and every practice due to Donald’s ability to get in the backfield in a hurry.
“He’s a big brother to me so I’m just looking forward to just playing versus him,” Conner said Friday. “Everybody knows who he is, his accolades. It’s no secret, he comes to play every game.
“It’ll be exciting, it’ll be the first time getting to play versus him so it’s pretty special. I know he’s gonna bring it, try to slam me, try to all types of different things so I’m coming with it too.”
As for any insider tips on how to block one of the best defenders of our generation?
“Just be ready,” Conner said with a smile. “I’ll be there to help.”
– Offensive line coach and run game coordinator Sean Kugler on Conner:
“Physically tough, mentally tough, outstanding. Gets the tough yards, some of the runs he made down there [Sunday] on the goal line, there’s a million bodies in there. He’s one of these kids that’s just not gonna be denied. What a great mentality, what a great kid. Love working with him.”