Con­ner, Lind­say among ris­ing stars

Daily Press (Sunday) - - Sports - By Sam Farmer Los An­ge­les Times

Once un­der radar, backs will com­pete Sun­day in Den­ver

In so many ways, the NFL sea­son re­ally starts af­ter Thanks­giv­ing.

That’s the stretch run, when the weather turns cold, the di­vi­sion races ei­ther tighten or sep­a­rate, and the tra­di­tion­ally good teams be­gin to build mo­men­tum that they will carry into the post­sea­son.

There have been more than a few sur­prises this sea­son, among them 33-year-old run­ning back Adrian Peter­son turn­ing back the clock with Wash­ing­ton, 39-yearold New Or­leans quar­ter­back Drew Brees ze­ro­ing in on his first Most Valu­able Player award, and the 10-1 Rams in po­si­tion to claim the first play­off spot — dur­ing their off week, no less. If Seat­tle loses at Carolina on Sun­day, the Rams would clinch the NFC West.

Lots of new blips are on the radar too. Sev­eral play­ers around the league who were over­looked dur­ing some point in their ca­reers have come into sharp fo­cus, not only carv­ing out ros­ter spots, but also mak­ing real im­pacts on their teams.

Two of those are run­ning backs James Con­ner of Pitts­burgh and Phillip Lind­say of Den­ver, whose teams will meet Sun­day in the Mile High City. The Steel­ers have won six in a row and are start­ing to pull away in the AFC North, while the 4-6 Bron­cos would need lots of help to pull back into con­tention for a wild-card spot.

Con­ner and Lind­say are two of the as­tound­ing suc­cess sto­ries, both lo­cal he­roes in their re­spec­tive mar­kets.

Con­ner, from Erie, Pa., played at the Univer­sity of Pitts­burgh, his ca­reer in­ter­rupted by a can­cer di­ag­no­sis in 2015. Doc­tors dis­cov­ered a mass in his chest that proved to be Hodgkin’s lym­phoma, the same con­di­tion that side­lined Kansas City safety Eric Berry, re­quir­ing12 rounds of che­mother­apy in the six months that fol­lowed.

“I choose not to fear can­cer,” a tear­ful Con­ner told re­porters af­ter his di­ag­no­sis, vow­ing, “I will play foot­ball again.”

And play he did, run­ning for 1,092 yards for Pitt in 2016, then leav­ing for the NFL. The Steel­ers took him in the third round of the 2017 draft. He stepped in for Le’Veon Bell this sea­son af­ter the Al­lPro run­ning back de­cided to hold out in­def­i­nitely for a bet­ter con­tract.

Run­ning be­hind one of the best lines in foot­ball, Con­ner leads AFC run­ning backs with 10 rush­ing touch­downs, and is sec­ond in the con­fer­ence be­hind Kansas City’s Ka­reem Hunt with 796 yards on the ground.

In Den­ver, it’s a dif­fer­ent feel­good story. Lind­say was a prep star for Den­ver South High and turned down other schol­ar­ship of­fers to stay in his state and play at Colorado. At 5-foot-8 and 190 pounds, he’s a com­pact Tasmanian devil, as fans like to say, who runs as if his un­tamed hair is on fire.

De­spite run­ning for a com­bined 2,726 yards and 30 touch­downs the past two sea­sons, Lind­say was not in­vited to the NFL scout­ing com­bine. In­stead, he par­tic­i­pated in a com­bine at his school, cov­er­ing 40 yards in a blis­ter­ing 4.39 sec­onds.

He was un­der the im­pres­sion the Bron­cos might use a late-round draft pick on him. In­stead, not only did they not se­lect him, but they also used a sev­enth-round pick on an­other run­ning back, Arkansas’ David Wil­liams.

Still, Lind­say was de­ter­mined to stay in his home state and play for his fa­vorite child­hood team. So he turned down a slightly more lu­cra­tive of­fer from Bal­ti­more to sign as a rookie free agent with the Bron­cos. It be­came ev­i­dent in train­ing camp al­most im­me­di­ately that he would make the team, prob­a­bly as a third-down, change-of-pace back, a poor man’s Chris­tian McCaffrey.

Wil­liams didn’t make the team,

Lots of new blips are on the radar too. Sev­eral play­ers around the league who were over­looked dur­ing some point in their ca­reers have come into sharp fo­cus.

and an an­kle in­jury to starter Royce Free­man opened the door for Lind­say, who has run for 670 yards and five touch­downs, sec­ond among rook­ies to No. 2 pick Saquon Barkley of the New York Gi­ants.

It’s worth not­ing that Barkley re­ceived a $15-mil­lion sign­ing bonus, whereas Lind­say’s bonus was $15,000.

Con­ner and Lind­say are but two of this sea­son’s happy dis­cov­er­ies, bud­ding stars who have their teams es­pe­cially thank­ful on this hol­i­day.

There’s also Ten­nessee’s Darius Jen­nings, a for­mer Vir­ginia Cava­lier who leads the NFL in kick­off re­turns with an av­er­age of 35.9 yards. He has been cut more than a dozen times, and has been on and off prac­tice squads through­out his three-year ca­reer.

Carolina of­fen­sive line­man Greg Van Roten, who was an Al­lIvy League tackle at Penn, bounced around the NFL for a while, played in Canada and then made a high­light video on YouTube that a friend showed to the Pan­thers. Carolina signed him last year, and now he’s start­ing at left guard.

Rookie out­side line­backer Darius Leonard didn’t com­pletely come out of the blue. He was a sec­ond-round pick by In­di­anapo­lis last spring out of South Carolina State. But peo­ple might be sur­prised he’s lead­ing the league in tack­les with 104, 13 more than sec­ond-place Cory Lit­tle­ton of the Rams.

How a player does in col­lege is not al­ways an ac­cu­rate pre­dic­tor of what type of NFL player he’ll be. For in­stance, Mi­ami rookie Ja­son San­ders made a ho-hum 25 of 35 field goals for New Mex­ico. He has made 15 of16 for the Dol­phins.

Those play­ers are like un­ex­pected pop-ins over the hol­i­days. Their teams have made room for them at the table, hop­ing they’ll get com­fort­able and stay awhile.

DON WRIGHT/THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

James Con­ner (30), shown run­ning against the Carolina Pan­thers, has made Le’Veon Bell seem re­place­able for the Pitts­burgh Steel­ers.

KELVIN KUO/THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Den­ver run­ning back Phillip Lind­say, left, a rookie for his home­town team, runs past Los An­ge­les Charg­ers line­backer Jatavis Brown.

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