The amount of interviews he’s done in his time on campus can be counted on one hand, with a few fingers to spare. It’s how he’s wired, really. He’d prefer to just play football.
But staying in the background becomes that much harder with every level he climbs. Conner was a consensus five-star prospect in high school. He announced his decision to commit to Ole Miss on national television on ESPN.
He was shaking.
In college, he’s attempted to avoid the limelight as much as possible, but his play has put everyone on notice, especially NFL scouts. Entering his junior season as a Rebel, Conner is considered by most every major scouting service as a top-round NFL Draft pick in 2016.
He now finds himself front and center. But he’s ready for it. He has to be.
“It’s nothing I really just pay attention to,” he said. “I really just come out here and play ball, man. In a way, it is (tough), because you’ve got folks tagging you in everything, and a lot of people coming at you and talking to you about this and that. I’m appreciative of it, but I try not to get caught up in it.”
Conner was named a preseason All-American by a number of major publications, including Athlon and CFB Matrix, and he’s on watch lists for the Bronko Nagurski Trophy and the Jim Thorpe Award. Sporting News tabbed the 6-foot, 215-pound Conner as the No. 7 defensive back in the nation. NFL.com ranked him as college football’s No. 2 most physical player.
Conner said he’s not worried about his draft projection, and there’s no set round in his head that would make his decision easier one way or the other. What he does know is that when the time finally come, leaving the only area he’s ever known is going to be difficult.
“It’d be tough. I mean, I’m right down the road from the house,” the Batesville, Miss., product said. “But I’m eventually going to have to leave either this year or the next year. I’m going to have to grow out of it. It’s something I can do. “I don’t look at it right now. I’m focused on this season and getting this season on out the way. Once we get this season out of the way, I’ll look more towards it.”
Ole Miss opens its season Saturday at 11 a.m. against UT-Martin. Conner, along with defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche, is among the faces of a Rebel team dealing with high expectations. Ole Miss was 9-4 a year ago, its defense among the nation’s best.
Conner was a major reason why. He tied for the team lead and topped all SEC defensive backs with 9.0 tackles for loss, and he was second on the team with 69 tackles. He believes 2015 can be even better.
“We’re going to take away the big plays this year,” Conner said, adding that the coaching staff has stressed the 29 big plays allowed in 2014. “Eliminate all the big plays. We had a good defense last year. I think our defense is a lot faster. It’s going to be a good year.”
BROWN MORE THAN A RUN-STOPPER
Fadol Brown played in every game last season, with nine starts at defensive end. He finished second on the team with five quarterback hurries, and he was seventh with 5.5 tackles for loss.
Missing, though, were sacks.
Brown, who totaled 38 tackles, had 0.5 sacks on the year for an Ole Miss defense that led the nation in points allowed and tackles for loss. The 6-foot-4, 280-pound Brown is seeking to be a better all-around lineman as a junior.
“I’m just trying to be an overall better player than I was last year,” he said. “(Last year), I had a whole lot of older guys around who pulled me aside and gave me pointers with this and with that. Younger guys now look at me as a veteran. They look up to me and ask me questions about the defense. I’ve got to be able to watch them, and I’ve got to play like a veteran.”
That includes getting to the quarterback.
“That’s something I’ve been working on real hard,” he said. “Ball get-off, being physical, knowing when to finesse, knowing when to squeeze the pocket. I think it’s reflected a little bit in fall camp.
“We look at the defense as everything starts up front. No matter how you look at it. Any game you watch, it starts with pass rush or making a big stop to get the offense back on the field. We look at it ourselves as every day we’ve got to come with it.”
ADEBOYEJO, OFFENSE GOING FAST
Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze said last week he would potentially name a starting quarterback on Monday.
Should he follow through, which seems likely, all signs point towards junior college transfer Chad Kelly being the guy. Kelly took the majority of first-team reps last week, and he’s been considered the frontrunner since arriving at Ole Miss in December.
The naming of Kelly is significant, and for a number of reasons, including a renewed emphasis on the up-tempo style Freeze became known for in his previous coaching stops and first season at Ole Miss. Kelly ran similar offenses at Clemson and East Mississippi Community College.
The Rebels want to go fast. Just ask junior wide receiver Quincy Adeboyejo.
“Some plays, we’ve got one signal and everybody knows what to do,” Adeboyejo said. “They know what route to run. I think the tempo’s there. They stress it all day. It’s different. (Ole Miss wide receivers) coach (Grant) Heard, he tells the wideouts, even if we’re not in tempo, the wideouts are in tempo, 100 percent of the time.”
The 6-foot-3, 195-pound Adeboyejo could play a major role. Ole Miss is roughly seven-deep at wide receiver, but Adeboyejo is one of a handful of veterans in the bunch. He started five games in the slot last season, finishing fifth on the team with 26 catches and 313 receiving yards.
“I did pretty good, I guess. I feel like I could have done better,” he said. “I’m working to be better. Just being consistent, learning my plays. If we’re in tempo, be where I need to be, run the right route and blocking. I’m pretty small, so I have to work on blocking a lot.”
More than anything, Adeboyejo wants to do his part. He’ll have to. If the Rebels go as fast as they have in fall camp, they’ll need all hands on deck.
“I feel like the offense is getting better by the day,” Adeboyejo said. “Positive vibes out there, and everybody’s working together. All the wideouts are making a lot of plays out there.”