The Rebels are in their second week of fall camp. Conner, a senior safety, has been pretty much full-go from day one. But he sits at least once on those days when Ole Miss holds two practices.
Conner played in and started just five games at husky last season after injuring his knee against Alabama. Conner said he’s still not 100 percent, but that he’s “getting close” to normal. It’s a day-to-day process he’s embracing as Ole Miss inches closer to its season-opening game against Florida State in Orlando, Fla., Sept. 5.
“I just continue to work with the training staff and getting rehab and everything and continue to do work on it and build strength in it,” he said. “It’s just a day-to-day thing. I really didn’t think it was going to be as bad an injury as it (was), but I knew I was hurt. It’s been keeping me away from the game of football, but God has a plan. Everything happens for a reason.”
Conner entered his junior season as a projected first-round NFL Draft pick alongside fellow former five-star signees Laquon Treadwell, Laremy Tunsil and Robert Nkemdiche. When the quartet signed in the class of 2013, they talked of leaving together as juniors to pursue their professional dreams.
Only Conner was left behind.
“Everybody had always said us four and Evan Engram would probably be leaving out,” Conner said. “Evan stayed, and on draft night, I watched. It was kind of crazy at first, but I still salute those guys and everything. God has a reason for everything. Everything happens for a reason.”
He’s only looking forward now. Conner is a former All-SEC selection and freshman All-American. He started every game at husky (a hybrid safety/linebacker position, similar to strong safety) in 2014, tying for the team lead and topping all SEC defensive backs with 9.0 tackles for loss. He was second on the team with 69 tackles.
“With this injury and everything, the first game back, people are going to try to test you,” he said. “It’s a day-to-day thing to continue to just rehab and build the strength up in my leg. I’m focused on my coverages and everything. It’s going to be a tough road. When I first got out there, I was thinking about (the knee) too much and it started bothering me. But it’s gotten better with time.
“The plays and everything, it’s come back right away. I’ve been in the film room with the young guys. Coach will point out some things that the young guys might not know and he’ll ask me, and I have to point things out to him and help the young guys out. It’s just really refreshing my mind. It’s just going out and just doing it.”
Woods Pushing Hampton?
Conner isn’t the only question mark in the Rebel secondary. Ole Miss lost a pair of four-year starters in Trae Elston and Mike Hilton, and veteran C.J. Moore recently underwent surgery to repair a torn pectoral muscle.
For a fall camp all but bereft of actual position battles, the ongoing competition between veteran C.J. Hampton and sophomore Zedrick Woods at free safety carries real intrigue. Ole Miss is still waiting on Hampton to make a major impact after signing him as a four-star prospect in 2014. He totaled 27 tackles in nine games — four starts — at free safety last season.
Woods, meanwhile, is an unheralded two-start signee who surprised many with his impressive play as a true freshman last season. He appeared in every game with two starts, finishing with 25 tackles, one tackle for loss and an interception.
“I feel like I handled my first year well,” Woods said. “We have great coaches. (Ole Miss safeties) Coach (Corey) Batoon, he breaks everything down and makes it easier to understand. I think (last year ) helped me a lot. I better understand the concepts of the defense now, as a whole.”
True freshman Myles Hartsfield is currently slated to start at rover, while Conner is manning husky. Woods, though, is well-versed in all three positions. He believes he can step in and execute no matter where he lines up, somewhat similar to the role once played by the always-on-the-move Hilton, who started at every position in the Ole Miss secondary in his career.
“I feel like if I keep doing good and play hard throughout camp, I can earn a starting spot,” Woods said. “Coach Batoon, he’s had me play all three spots. I basically know all of them. I think it’s a great opportunity for me knowing the defense and knowing all the positions. If one man goes down and we need to adjust, I’ll still be able to execute.”
Aside from a starting job, Woods has rather modest goals for the remainder of August practices. He simply wants to be consistent each and every day and do “whatever I can to help the team.” That includes being more vocal and leading.
“I’m not really a talkative person,” he said. “But the big emphasis for me this camp has been leadership and being more vocal.”
Webster Not Thinking NFL
Ken Webster isn’t thinking about the NFL just yet.
Not that he hasn’t heard some rumblings.
Webster has played in 26 games over his first two seasons at Ole Miss, including starting every game at cornerback in 2015. He tied for third on the team and was eighth among SEC players with 12 passes defended.
He was at his best at the end of last season. The Rebels closed with a rout of Oklahoma State in the Sugar Bowl in January to cap a 10-3 year, and Webster was instrumental in the win. He made five total tackles in the game and broke up two passes.
He’s already being listed as a potential mid-round selection by a handful NFL scouting services, meaning scouts recognize his talent and his stock could skyrocket with improved play as a junior. Webster, however, is staying in the present.
“I kind of block it out,” he said. “I stay away from that because it’s a distraction. I think of it as a distraction. My goal is to get ready for the season and have the best season and have fun each and every game.”
Recent history has been kind to Ole Miss cornerbacks who parlay a breakout season into NFL millions.
Senquez Golson had, all things considered, three rather unremarkable seasons at Ole Miss before a banner senior year in which he tied a school record with 10 interceptions and was named a first-team All-American. Godson went on to be selected in the second round of the 2015 NFL Draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Could Webster follow a similar path?
“It’s very distracting,” Webster said. “You’ve got to be mature enough to block it out. I think I’m mature enough to do that. When people talk about it, I just go with it. But in my head, I’m thinking about the season and how I can get better.
“It feels weird being one of the older guys in the room, but it’s a good weird. When I first got here, I had Senquez and Mike Hilton and Cody Prewitt. Now those guys are gone and living their dreams. It’s different. Last year had its ups and downs. I wasn’t as sure of what to do. But now I have it all down pat. It’s in my world now. I can just go play.”