Conner spent his high school career winning championships at traditional Mississippi powerhouse South Panola. Ole Miss improved its record by one game each season over his three years in college, including a 10-3 mark and Sugar Bowl win a year ago.
So the Rebels at 3-4 (1-3 SEC) through seven games in 2016 — with back-to-back conference losses — is unfamiliar territory to Conner, a former All-SEC and All-America selection. But he’s doing his best to pull the team together. He’s widely recognized as a leader, a responsibility he takes seriously.
“It is football. It is the SEC West. Anything is capable of happening,” Conner said. “At times you might face bad times. You might face good times. I’ve had success here, but as of right now, can’t say it’s been a bad year, but you live and you learn from bad things.””
Ole Miss is reeling following a 38-21 loss at LSU. Conner and the Rebel defense allowed Tiger running back Leonard Fournette to run free for a school-record 284 yards. And the road doesn’t get any easier Saturday, when the Rebels play host to Auburn.
The Tigers rushed for 544 yards in a blowout of Arkansas last week.
“We’ve just got to come back in, leave it behind and focus right now,” Conner said. “Key things coaches point out is alignment. It’s SEC games – the SEC West – it’s tough and the main thing is alignment and assignment. You’re supposed to be in certain gaps. You’ve got to win that gap. You can’t get cut off by certain things – let the guard get up to you when you know you’re supposed to be in this gap. You’ve got to get over and correct it. We’ve all just got to come together as one, as a unit. Just because a d-lineman or a linebacker get cut off, it’s up to a safety to make a tackle. We’re the last guy on the field and we’ve got to make that tackle. We’ve just got to move forward and learn from it and make corrections.”
It’s disconcerting, to say the least, for some of the young players to be struggling with basic assignment and calls so late into the season, but Conner said all the Rebels can do is go to work.
“It’s hard right now because it’s late in the season, we’ve been on this road for a while. We’ve just got to get better at it and keep on communicating. We’re young and everything, but this late in the season there’s no excuses. Everyone should know their alignment and assignment. On play calls, you can’t be out there doing your own thing because once you mess up, it’s a big bust. As you can tell, we had some of those Saturday night.
“Once we get the play call from the sideline the linebackers have to get the plays for the secondary and the d-line set up. We’ve just got to do more communication out there. This week we’ve got to work on more communication. If guys don’t know their alignment or assignment or if they don’t know the play call, we’re going to have to work on that this week. So hopefully this week we’re going to get together and get the guys who don’t know the call, we’re going to let them talk this week.”
Also of concern is team chemistry. ESPN cameras caught a few Rebel teammates verbally fighting on the sideline Saturday, a clear sign of frustration and rising tension as the losses are beginning to pile up.
Conner said the incident(s) wasn’t as bad as it appeared.
“It caught us at the wrong time,” he said. “Guys were getting into it with each other. We’ve just got to keep on coming out and execute. It might get a little feisty at times, but it’s just guys trying to correct the secondary guys. It just gets a little heated, but you get your leaders over there and calm everyone down. Once we got everyone calmed down we talked about it and everything got back on the right page.
“As I’m one of the older guys, seeing the younger guys getting into it, Issac Gross and myself, D.J. (Jones), we just have to get together and calm them down and get on the same page. We can’t just look back at that, we’ve got to move forward. If you look back at it you’ll be stuck on that, you’ll just continue to make the same mistakes, so we’ve just got to leave it behind.”
Auburn enters play 5-2 (3-1 SEC) overall after starting the season 1-2. The Tigers are winners of four straight games.
They lead the SEC in rushing and rank third nationally, averaging 302.9 rushing yards per game. The rushing attack is led by Kamryn Pittway and Kerryon Johnson, the duo having combined for 1,235 yards and 12 touchdowns.
“We’re going to get in this week, watch film. We’ve seen what they can do against Arkansas,” Conner said. “As things go this is the SEC West, so anything is capable, but this week we will be more focused and physical on the run this week.”
Winning cures all, but no matter what happens the rest of the way, Conner is focused on leading the underclassmen, from Myles Hartsfield and Deontay Anderson to Jalen Julius and Jaylon Jones.
They are the future, after all.
“You’ve just got to move on as being a leader to the young guys,” he said. “The main thing is we’ve got to keep those guys on the right path because they’re the future.”