Conner injured his knee against Alabama last September, limiting the now-senior Ole Miss safety to just five games played — all starts — and 17 total tackles. He underwent surgery shortly after and wasn’t the same when he returned against Arkansas. The Rebels lost a marathon 53-52 game. Conner had four tackles.
Many weeks and months have passed, however, since Alabama running back Derrick Henry took him out, and for the first time in a while he’s truly starting to feel like himself again. Ole Miss will take on Florida State to kick off the 2016 season in under two weeks. Kickoff in Orlando, Fla., is set for Sept. 5 at 7 p.m. CT.
“Everything is going good,” Conner said. “Coaches and everything, they kept me back a little bit this camp, but as far as I know, every time the ones go out there, I was out there. I wasn't trying to get held back any. Just trying to get out there and play with my brothers.”
Conner said he’s “about 90” percent healthy. He feels good, and if Florida State was tomorrow, he’d be “willing to go.”
But the coaching staff is being cautious with him. Keeping Conner upright is too important. Ole Miss graduated a pair of four-year starters in its defensive backfield in free safety Trae Elston and rover Mike Hilton. In their place is a pair of underclassmen in sophomore Zedrick Woods and true freshman Myles Hartsfield.
Conner, meanwhile, has the pedigree as a once-projected first round NFL Draft pick.
“He's come a long way from last year,” Conner said of Woods. “He's going to be a big help in our secondary. He's still kind of young, but as of right now, he'll be in the film room each and every day learning the plays. I think he's going to be a big help to our team.
“Myles put me in the mindset of a Mike Hilton. He can play husky, he can play rover, and I think he can play safety or corner. I think he's going a great job with that coming in as a freshman and learning the defense as a young guy. Deontay (Anderson), he's doing a phenomenal job as well coming in learning the defense as a freshman. I think those guys are going to be pretty good.”
The Rebels are in their third full week of August practices. Conner has been pretty much full-go from day one, running with the first team at husky, the Ole Miss defense’s hybrid safety/linebacker position. But he sits at least once on those days when Ole Miss holds two practices.
“It feels great,” Conner said of being back playing football. “Coming from last year with the injury and just sitting at home watching my brothers play, it hurt. It's just a great feeling just to be back out there with those guys right now. Just to be back out there with them, it feels good.”
Conner said he hasn’t felt any pain in the knee, though he’s playing with a brace. And he’s still rehabbing daily. His conditioning is good, too. He’s right there with the rest of his teammates, sometimes even ahead of the pack, during sprints and other run-heavy drills.
Basically, Conner believes he’s getting close to his old self. He’s a former All-SEC selection and freshman All-American. He started every game at husky 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.
“When I first came out to camp, I was thinking about (the knee),” he said. “After that first day going into it, I just don't think about it at all. I just feel more comfortable with it, so I just don't think about it.
“I think I'm better (than before). With this injury, it really helped me in the weight room and everything. I was kind of strong before, but with (strength) coach (Paul) Jackson and his staff, me and him worked every day just really one-on-one. He really got me a lot stronger than I am and have been. I think it's a big help.”
On his comfort level playing with the brace:
“As of last year, I played with it some. This year, they told me I might have to play with it the whole season. The first day, it was kind of a little shaky, but after the first day, I felt more confident in it and continued to wear the brace and everything. (limit you at all?) I wouldn't say that because if I did, I would just be using that as an excuse. I don't think it's limited me none at all.”
On the defense limiting explosive plays:
“We started out kind of slow at first, but as we continue to get in it. The first couple of days, we were giving up big, explosive plays because we've got a lot of young guys. Each and every day when we come to watch film, the coaches be on them telling them something right and something they did wrong like they're out there doing their own thing of they've got their eyes on the quarterback. (Ole Miss safeties) Coach (Corey) Batoon does a good job telling them that it's not high school anymore. I'll say the young guys, they really look up to Coach Batoon from the meetings to on the field. They really do a good job of picking up on it.”
On the key to limiting big plays:
“Just communication. Coach Freeze always talks about that — communication, communication, communication. If we get out there and don’t communicate at all, we really won’t get anything done. But when we go out there, talk and communicate, we do everything just the right way then.”
On FSU RB Dalvin Cook:
“Dalvin Cook is a good running back. I just got through watching film on him. He's a great, explosive running back. The main thing is we've just got to go into the game and just tackle. Communicate and just tackle and everything will be fine. (remind you of anyone?) He's a big back. Derrick Henry is a lot bigger. Leonard Fournette, he's a lot more physical and everything. He's up there with those guys. He's a great back, I wouldn't put anything past him. We're going to go out and just have a good game of football.”
On the defense as whole:
“We started out kind of slow. We've just got to communicate. Once we go out there and we don't communicate at all, that's when we give up big, explosive. The coaches, they stay talking about third down. We've got to get off the field on third down because when we don't, we're out there a lot longer. It's just a big thing to go out there and communicate.”
On his role in communication:
“Coach Batoon always says when you go out there and you don't communicate, you don't know what's going on. We've got a couple young guys right now, so I have to keep on communicating because I've been around this program a longer time. I'm a senior, so I've got to go out there and communicate. I think C.J. Hampton, he does a great job over there on the boundary side communicating. Sometimes they say they don't get it, but coach always tells us we're the leaders on defense. We've got to just go in there and communicate because we know the defense.”
On his backups at husky:
“Montrell (Custis) and A.J. (Moore), they're going a great job. They come in the film room every day. We just stay on each other just trying to do the right thing. It's just the little things. Once I go out there or A.J. goes out there or once Montrell goes out there, (Batoon) always tells the Huskie that we're the leader of the defense and we've got to get everybody lined up. Those guys, they do a phenomenal job with that. They're out there making plays as well. That's a great guy.”
Hard to communicate with so much youth?
“I wouldn't say that. We have some young guys, but as we go out, we've got to communicate. They always tells us just communicate, communicate. Sometimes they might not get it or they might forget a play or two, but sometimes we've just got to play the next play. We can't look at the last play. We've just got to play the next play, come in the film room and get that corrected.”