Another surgery awaits Ole Miss safety following the season

Derrick Henry went low, and Tony Conner felt the pain immediately.

He had already been nursing the right knee he injured in preseason practices in August. But the hit - a routine cut block in the fourth quarter of Ole Miss’ 43-37 win at Alabama - from the 6-foot-3, 242-pound Henry caught him just right. He knew it was serious. 

Torn meniscus. Surgery. Out at least four weeks.

Conner ultimately missed six games and made his return against Arkansas. He played around 30 plays, and there was some expected swelling the following Monday that required team doctors to drain his knee and for Conner to miss practice time. 

“I was pretty shocked,” Conner said of the amount of playing time he received. “During the practice week, I was getting reps but I didn’t think it was going to be that much. I was kind of shocked going into the game playing as much as I did. I was pretty confident playing that much.”

Halftime was a chore. Conner said the knee stiffened up, but as long as he was moving, he was fine. He said he can “absolutely” play more.

He’ll have to, even if he’ll be dealing with discomfort the rest of the way. The Rebel defense was shredded by the Brandon Allen-led Razorbacks. They surrendered over 600 yards of offense and 53 points in a one-point, overtime loss. Conner finished with four total tackles and 0.5 tackles for loss.

“During the game, at the beginning, I didn’t really have no pain,” Conner said. “Once I got out there, I wasn’t thinking about it. But while I’m out there I just had to get back to being myself, and after I made my first tackle, I was more confident of just going in there. When halftime came, just sitting in the locker room, I got stiff from that. Once I got back out, I got stretched and got on the bike, I was constantly moving.”

Petre Thomas

Conner could have ended his season after Alabama. He had the option to undergo the full-on arthroscopic surgery needed to completely repair a meniscus tear. But Conner, who was second on the team in tackles with 69 a year ago, wanted to play.

He opted for a lesser-grade surgery and a potential return for at least a few more games in his junior season.

“It hurt,” he said. “I could go in and get scoped and try to come back and play on it or I could go and have the big surgery and sit out the rest of the year. I talked it over with my parents. Good coaching staff; they asked me what I feel like doing. It’s up to me, my decision. I wanted to just go in and get it scoped and come back.

“It didn’t take long. I had like a day. Just get away from the coaches and everybody, wanted to talk with my parents and everything about it. I came back and talked it over with the coaches. They were just trying to make sure what was the best fit for me and everything.”

Conner was considered a first-round NFL talent entering the season. But an additional procedure awaits in the next month or so, meaning he would have to sit out a bulk of a draft process, from a combine or two to training sessions and more. 

Conner was non-committal when asked about his future and the possibility of returning for his senior season. He said he’d talk things over with his parents and make a decision “pretty soon.” Rebel head coach Hugh Freeze, however, is anticipating having Conner back in the fold.

“Tony and I have talked,” Freeze said of his three-year starter at “husky,” the team’s hybrid linebacker/safety position. “I don’t think he’s even thinking in those terms. He’s thinking let me get myself well and come have a great senior year. We’ll gather all the facts. For Tony, he’s thinking the wisest thing … he told me that. Unless something changes, which it could, I believe that he’s thinking right now the best decision would be to come back and get himself well.”

Conner was an All-SEC second team selection last season, starting every game and tying for the team lead and topping all SEC defensive backs with 9.0 tackles for loss. He helped Ole Miss lead the nation in scoring defense and rank top-20 in total defense and passing defense.

Suffice, to say, his return would be a huge boost. Ole Miss returns to action Saturday against LSU at 2:30 p.m. on CBS.

“Right now, I’ve been focused on this season,” Conner said. “Right now, with my knee injury and everything, I really just haven’t been focused on (the NFL). I’ve been trying to get back into rehab and get back on the field, and I’ll just think about it as we go on.”

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