James Conner molds career after legendary Tony Dorsett

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Pittsburgh running back James Conner is only a sophomore, but he might already be breaking his way toward the best rushing career in school history.

That's pretty impressive — especially when you consider that College and Pro Football Hall of Famer Tony Dorsett once called himself a Panther.

But Conner has earned the hype. The 6-foot-2, 250 pound bowling-ball of a back has made himself the nation's leading rusher after four games.

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With 699 rushing yards on 110 carries, Conner is averaging 6.4 yards-per-carry and already has nine touchdowns on the year, also tied for the league lead.

That impressive early performance has some Pitt fans shouting "Heisman" from the stands, though the Panthers relatively unimpressive schedule will certainly hold him back from serious contention.

Shades of the past

Before Conner became a clear All-American candidate, the last Pittsburgh running back to reach such honors was Craig "Ironhead" Heyward," a 6-foot back at a hefty 260 pounds.

Heyward rushed for 1,791 yards on his way to finishing fifth in the Heisman voting, then went on to play in the pros for another 10 years. While he was an impressive Panthers player, his more than 3,000 career rushing yards weren't enough to get another ball-toter out of fans' minds.

That dominant athlete was Tony Dorsett. He was everything a college football fan could ask for in the sport's still youthful innocence: a hard-nosed runner who won All-American honors four times and remains the school's only Heisman Trophy winner.

His stats were dominant and are unlikely to be matched in college's general turn toward fast-paced passing offenses. Dorsett ran for an unseemly 6,526 rushing yards, with more than 2,000 of those coming his senior season.

He would go on to play in the NFL, earning four Pro Bowls with the Dallas Cowboys before finishing his career as a Denver Bronco. 

It's safe to say that all Pitt running backs aspire to Dorsett's level of production.

In one way though, Conner has already surpassed his legendary predecessor.

Record-breaking season

Conner's 699 rushing yards through the opening four games broke Dorsett's previous record of 564 yards for that same time span.

The sophomore could also challenge Dorsett's record for fewest games needed to reach the 1,000 yard mark. It took Dorsett seven games to reach 1,000 yards in 1976 during his Heisman campaign. 

But Conner is already almost there and can break the record if he can rush for more than 301 yards in his next two games.

That is certainly a possibility, since Conner has averaged 174.8 yards per contest and faces lowly Akron next week before a slightly more challenging match-up against Virginia after that.

Even if Conner doesn't break that record, he has already accomplished one feat.

He has out-run the ghost of Dorsett.

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