The senior Ole Miss safety was destined for early entry into the NFL and the millions that come with it. Then he was cut-blocked by then-Crimson Tide running back Derrick Henry midway through a 43-37 Rebel win and lost for the next six games with a meniscus tear in his knee. Even when he returned for Arkansas, he wasn’t himself.
Ultimately, he was shut down. He missed the Sugar Bowl after undergoing offseason surgery, giving him a final junior-season line of 17 tackles and four tackles for loss.
He’s started each of the first two games of the 2016 season. Ole Miss is 1-1. But Conner is still working to get back to what he once was — an All-American and one of the most feared defensive players in the Southeastern Conference.
“It’s kind of just going through each game and getting more reps,” Conner said. “As it continues to come, I’ll feel more and more comfortable. Just like the start of camp. The first day going out there, I wasn’t as comfortable as I am now. The first game played against Florida State, they cut a lot. I was out there thinking about it at the same time. It’s just a day-to-day thing, each game just getting better and getting prepared for it.”
“He was a little rusty the first week,” Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze said. “Seemed to be a little more himself last week. But he didn't play a lot of snaps last week against the stuff we were facing. This will be a really good test for him and a measuring stick to see where we are.”
It would certainly be understandable if Conner had some uneasiness about this week. The No. 19-ranked Rebels host No. 1 Alabama Saturday at 2:30 p.m. on CBS. The Crimson Tide is responsible for the hard road back he’s had to travel.
But Conner isn’t letting his mind go there.
“Last year was last year,” he said. “This year, I’m just looking for a totally different outcome. Every game, I just pray and hope that there won’t be any injuries for either team. I’m going to go out here to practice and make sure everybody’s focusing on the little things this week.”
The 6-foot, 225-pound Conner was widely considered a shoe-in first-round NFL Draft selection prior to injury. These days, he’s simply trying to get his feet under him and find some comfort playing with a knee brace.
So far, his performance has been somewhat up-and-down. He’s 17th on the team in tackles with four, including two in the Rebels’ most-recent action, a 38-13 win over Wofford on Saturday. Conner was a preseason All-SEC selection, having racked up 156 tackles and 18.5 tackles for loss in 33 career games.
“With the brace on, you’ve just got to keep on working,” he said. “It’s like you’re carrying another leg out there. Speed-wise, I feel fine, but I’ve got to keep continuing to do more and more things after practice and work on it.”
He had to have his knee drained following the season-opening loss to Florida State. He might have to have another at some point this season. Whatever he has to do, he’ll do it. Again, life with his surgically-repaired knee is a day-to-day process.
He’s trying to get by.
“Everything is normal,” he said. “Coming out in the second half (against FSU), I’m just sitting in the locker room and it kind of just stiffed up. I can tell that I wasn’t the way I was at first when I came out for the first half. (Ole Miss athletics trainer) Pat (Jernigan) always tells me to let him know if something is bothering me, and I did.
“It’s still just a day-to-day thing.”
On if he’s explained to the young players the significance of Alabama: “Every game is really important, but we had a meeting yesterday and a lot of guys were saying it’s Alabama week. We should prepare like every game is like Alabama week, but for the young guys, just tell them to make sure to just play ball and be comfortable. You’re going to have mistakes. Each team is going to have mistakes. The only thing you can do is play the next play because if you think about the play you messed up on, you’re going to think about it the entire game. Just play football.”
On Alabama’s vertical passing game: “It’s a good program. As I’ve been watching them, they’ve got a lot of speed guys. Their offense is a lot like our offense. We know what they can do. Take nothing from Alabama, we’ve just got to go out and play right.”
Freshman Alabama QB Jalen Hurts: “From watching that first game, he’s a true freshman but he’s played tremendously well. We’ve got to go out and play our landshark defense. Take nothing from him; he’s a great quarterback from what I’ve seen. We’ve just got to execute.”
On the Alabama RBs: “In the past you’ve got Derrick Henry, T.J. Yeldon and those guys. It’s nothing different. They’ve got Bo (Scarbrough), and everybody’s been talking about him. He’s another Derrick Henry. We’ve got to go out and tackle and play our defense.”
More on playing a young QB: “We look at it no different. As a young quarterback, we’re just going to have to go out and execute on our half. We’re going to have to make plays. He’s a dual-threat quarterback; he can run and he can pass. I’m sure our coaches have a great game plan going up against him.”
On potential similarities between Hurts and Deondre Francois: “Both of them are dual-threat quarterbacks. We compare Hurts a lot to Blake Sims. We’ve played against quarterbacks like him in the past, and I’m sure our coaches and defensive coordinator are going to have a great game plan.”