Conner Eager For First Turn At State Quarterback

Omarr Conner is no insect expert. But neither does he need help identifying those creepy-crawlies lurking in his locker this week, or their source.

"Right now I've got jitterbugs," Conner said. "I'm anxious to get out there and play."

Don't bother calling in an exterminator to take care of this species, gridironia nausius, though. By about, ohhh, 5:10 this Saturday, Conner will be bug-free and playing ball. Specifically, playing quarterback, the position he signed on with Mississippi State to fill.

And whether the jitters vanish before kickoff or take a good, sharp tackle to dislodge at last, Conner will be right where he wants most to be. Under center, and in charge. "It's been a real long wait," he says.

"But I feel real good about what we're going to do when we come in and play Saturday. Everybody is pumped-up and ready to play ball."

A stadium-full of State folk and the TV audience out in Bulldog Country are equally ready to see how the touted second-year triggerman performs at the helm of Coach Sylvester Croom's offense. And yes, there is some natural anxiety on their part, too. Not only is Mississippi State lifting the cover on an entirely new playbook, but the kid calling the cadence hasn't taken a serious snap since he was running the show at Noxubee County High in 2002.

Jitterbugs, indeed. "But I think I'm going to settle myself down and just do what I do best," Conner said. "Make plays for Coach Croom and this team. And let them know I'm a leader and I'm ready for the position."

Conner has had three preseason weeks to practice the position. Croom and coordinator Woody McCorvey have been satisfied on the whole. There are still plenty of rough spots, hasty reads, overeager footwork, and so on. Yet Conner has not just held his starter's status all camp, he has established himself in the mind of his teammates as #1 Dog. For now that might mean as much or more than any technical issues.

And as Conner has gained confidence with the gameplan, so has his squad. "I think everybody has learned the offense now," he said, optimistically. "At first everybody was hesitant, we were moving slow around the field. Now everybody has adapted to it and we're bouncing around and making plays in this offense."

Making plays has never been an issue with this superb athlete. The physical gifts were so impressive that as a freshman Conner was thrown onto the field as a wide receiver, and he played it quite well at times. Observers might wonder if, given how the season played out, giving up a redshirt year was a worthwhile tradeoff for the program. For his part Conner is still glad he played.

"I think it was positive. It really helped me learn the speed of the game, what teams do. Most of the teams we play this year we played last year so I know mostly what defenses they're going to run, what the linebackers do. It's got me ready to play quarterback, reading defenses. It's going out there and taking one play at a time."

Now Conner will take a play at a time on the other end of the throw-and-catch equation. And in spring it was not as if he had to be reminded where the quarterback lines up…though he did have to be shown that in Croom's system he would be under-center instead of back in a high school shotgun set. Toss in the pro-style scheme and Conner admits at times he looked lost. "It felt like it would never come back to me, like I'd (never) played quarterback."

The intangibles, now, they came naturally. And despite the jitterbugs Conner is confident he can get the job done on opening night.

"My responsibility is to get the ball in the best people's hands and try to make plays. It's a great offensive scheme for me. It's just teaching me how to be disciplined with my five-step, three-step. Putting the ball in the running back's hands and letting them make plays."

Conner has no delusions of an easy debut. "I think Tulane is going to play their best ball," he says. "I know they're going to come at me with a lot of defenses, I just have to find my read and do right." To that end quarterback and coaches have focused on keeping Conner playing within the plan.

"Coach knows I get back in the pocket sometimes and get my mind on one player or receiver. He might be locked down and I try to throw the ball to give him a chance. That's the wrong read. In this offense, just putting the ball in a player's hands sometimes works because. It's a lot of high-percentage short passes so you really always have an option—your back, your fullback, your receivers. You always have somebody underneath or outside the ball. It really isn't that hard, I just have to take my time and do right."

Of course ‘taking time' is a relative term at football speed. And Croom has said that at times Conner's fast footwork might be what saves the day in this first year of the West Coast scheme. Conner doesn't mind. "I think if my legs let me make a play I'll make the play. But most of the time, in the offense we run, everything will bail me out. You've got a person there for you, everything can adjust."

Adjusting is something Conner gets better at with every practice. Now he puts it all into practice against other-color jerseys. Come Saturday evening the soph will stride to the line, look for the Green safeties to judge the coverage and support, match them with prepared plays, and make a call. Hopefully, the correct one.

"You have to make the read in Coach Croom's offense because everything is timing, if you mess up the first read it blows the whole play off and nobody is going to be open," Conner said. "You have to take it one play at a time, go out and find your progression…who is number-one, number-two, who are your alerts and who is hot. You have a third and an ‘alert' read."

That's more reading in one play than some State students will do this semester. To make things a bit simpler the staff will have scripted the first few sets of plays, but after that coaches and quarterback alike will be speed-reading on the fly.

If every-Bulldog-body can read things aright on the field, Mississippi State has every chance for a successful home opener and a winning beginning to Conner's career at quarterback. The Macon native is also relieved to make his backfield debut in encouraging confines.

"I'm glad to be at home the first game, just to let the fans see how the new season is going to be with Coach Croom and how the new-look Bulldogs are going to do. I'd rather let the home crowd see it before we take it on the road!"

And if the home crowd likes the look of these Bulldogs, maybe jitterbugs will become an endangered species.

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