Skill Players Looking To Build Off 2013

Already, after completing their first season of action, James Conner, Tyler Boyd and Manasseh Garner will be expected to top their numbers of last year.

Tyler Boyd--aside from the record-setting season the Aaron Donald had last season--was one of the other big stories of 2013.

Boyd lived up to every bit of hype he was expected to produce in his college career. He contributed earlier than expected, bigger than expected in his true freshman year.

He set new freshman receiving records for receptions and yards, surpassing previous records set by Larry Fitzgerald. Boyd caught 85 passes for 1,174 yards and seven touchdowns. He also went out with a bang, 242 all-purpose yards including a 54-yard punt return for a touchdown.

Not only will Boyd be expected to contribute similar numbers. With Devin Street heading for a professional career, and receivers coach Bobby Engram off to the Baltimore Ravens, Boyd suddenly finds himself in a leadership role.

"I feel like I'm getting a place to be a leader," Boyd said. "Even though I'm not a senior, I feel like I can help others. Even for myself, I try to get better, and they can do the same with me. I'm just trying to ease my way into that leader role."

Had it not been for James Conner's 229 yards in that bowl game, we'd be talking about Boyd as the MVP of that game. But what's really to complain about two MVP-type performances in the same game.

Conner had an up-and-down year, but finished on a high-note with his performance against Bowling Green. Also a game where he played some at defensive end.

"The only one who talks about it is Coach Chryst and Coach John Palermo," Conner said. "If they want me to do it, I will."

At first glance, Conner looks a little trimmer. He's also sporting a new number this year, 24, in honor of his favorite player, Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch.

So where does Conner develop from here? He says he's at 248 right now, but admits feeling lighter. More importantly than the difference in the strength and conditioning program, he talked about some of the fundamental things he's focusing on this spring.

"I'm going to try and play at 240," Conner said. "I tried to tone up a lot. Coach Ross Kolodziej is doing a great job, with (assistant strength coach) Brian Calhoun.

"Ball security was one of (the fundamentals). Coach said I was doing a great job with that. It's paying off. It's changing around here. I feel a lot more comfortable."

Conner has a new position coach this year in John Settle, which sounds like it's off to a good start.

"He has a real good resume, being with the Panthers and the Browns," Conner said. "He was in the NFL. That's my ultimate goal, so it's good to learn from a guy like that."

This is Manasseh Garner's third spring with Pitt. He too has a noticeable change to his physique--down to 215, from 235. He's also officially listed as a receiver now, as opposed to tight end.

That shouldn't be too shocking, considering he lined up at tight end and receiver in a number of games last year.

Garner finished with 33 catches for 391 yards and three touchdowns--third overall in receiving, behind Boyd and Street. More impressive, the fact that Garner finished with more than half of those numbers in the last four games (17 catches for 228 yards).

Seeing how Garner's numbers blew up over that final stretch gives reason to think he is still breaking out. Maybe the fact he's finally found a home, and finally adjusted to a role that suits him best.

"It's technically receiver, but I still have a little mixture of H-back," Garner said. "I'm still able to do some of the same inside stuff. I feel good. I feel quicker. I'm able to increase my speed."

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