"Coach Croom has faith in me," said Conner. "I just want him to keep it in me. And I'm going to do the job."
If he can keep the job, that is. Conner began preseason camp right where he finished spring training, as the first-team quarterback. But he also understands that his status atop the depth chart is only as secure as today' s effort and efficiency. For now, Conner's name on the #1 quarterback spot is written in pencil, not pen.
No problem, #14 grins. "I've got to continue to take it one day at a time and just make plays, keep my teammates believing in me."
As Croom's unexpected statement in Birmingham shows, the coaching staff already believes the sophomore signal-caller is the right choice to run the Bulldog offense. A brand-new offense, at that. Conner likes the new pro-style scheme, especially the demands it places on the quarterback to make decisions both quickly and correctly. It certainly seems to suit both his talent and temperment, as 15 spring practices showed. "I think my spring was pretty good, it could have been better," Conner said. "But I know I'll just pick up where I left off and keep making plays."
Croom is counting on it.
"He's got a long way to go but he's a tremendous athlete." Conner has to be to draw comparisons to Smith. Croom has a first-hand basis to make such a call, too. "I had the chance to coach him at Tampa Bay," the 17-year NFL coach noted. "Omarr has a stronger arm, he's a better runner."
Now that is a strong statement seeing how Smith won some games on fast-and-fancy footwork. Croom admits that he might be taking such a viewpoint to encourage himself about the upcoming season. "I'm looking for things to make myself sleep at night," he half-jokes. "The truth is we're going into the Tulane game with a guy who hasn't played quarterback in this conference. But I like the kid's mental toughness, I like his athleticism."
Omarr Conner is athletic enough to have played (most MSU fans now call it ‘wasted ') his freshman year as a wide receiver. He did catch 14 passes for 211 yards, a 15.1-average, and enjoyed the chance to get on the field as a rookie. The wisdom of wasting a redshirt year was dubious at best, but even then it was clear Conner's future was in throwing passes, not catching them.
In spring scrimmages Conner was 18-of-37 passing for 296 yards. The stats were secondary to some other things the kid showed coaches and teammates alike. "I think I led my team the best I could," Conner said. Now he plans on keeping the lead at quarterback, and he spent many summer afternoons playing throw-and-catch with his wide receivers working on patterns and timing.
He also practiced the most basic element of the offense, the center-exchange - a very sore point much of spring camp. "I was not happy," Conner said, nor was his coach. But the problems shouldn't have been a surprise. Not only had Conner spent his first fall at another position, he had not taken a true center-snap since the ninth grade at Noxubee County High School. He was a prep superstar working out of the shotgun. The West Coast offense is not run that way, however.
"Really what hurt me was in high school staying in the shotgun all the time. Now it's a new thing with my hands up under the center." In the early non-contact days of preseason practices the exchanges have been much better. Conner most often worked out with Chris McNeil, who he expects to be his starting snapper.
The quarterback also thinks he and his center will make a solid pairing. "We have to be good, we have to be the two captains on the team. He's got to let me know what's going on up front and I have to control everything behind him."
Conner has shown his coach that he wants to take control. Croom has also seen something else he likes. In spring the quarterback had a bad practice and a worse post-practice session in the head coach's office. "By the time I got through chewing him out, the poor boy didn't have anywhere to sit down," Croom said. "He came back the next day and had his best practice of spring. And he kept working forward.
"It showed some mental toughness. I can get on him and he'll look you in the eye and smile back at you. It means if something bad happens in the game he's going to let it roll off his back. But we've got to try to eliminate the bad things."
And, emphasize the good things Conner brings to the table. The offense, that is. Conner is not taking it for granted that he will be taking the first snap against Tulane, not with a healthy Kyle York and an improved Aries Nelson still around to compete for the job.
"It's going to be tough and all three of us have to keep motivating each other," Conner said. "If one plays and the other doesn't, we'll motivate each other and make sure we lead the team the best we can."
In fact, leadership skill will play as big a part in running the new MSU offense as any talent. These Bulldogs will have grasped only a portion of Croom's playbook by kickoff, so they won't have every offensive weapon available for a while. Until then, State will need steady, even inspired, leadership by creative athletes like Conner. If this seems like a lot of pressure to pile on a rookie quarterback, well, it's just part of the job.
"I like that," Conner said. "Being a quarterback you take a leadership role and I think I'm ready to be a leader for this team. It's just keeping my teammates' faith in me. Because it's a team effort. You've got 11 people on the field and I know every guy is going to give their all. It's not just individual. I think it comes with the role of quarterback."
A role that Smith guy filled quite well when he led the league in offense in 1986. Conner was only a two-year-old at the time and has little idea who his fellow northeast Mississippian was. But he would love to be the same kind of game-breaking, team-making Bulldog quarterback two decades later.
"I'm just looking forward to a new year and just turning things around, making a new beginning."
David Murray is the editor of Dawgs' Bite magazine and the featured writer for the Dawgs Bite, Powered by GenesPage.com website. You can contact him by email at email@example.com.