It’s been since Week 3 of last season—when the helmeted head of an Alabama blocker struck Tony Conner’s right knee with enough force to rip the meniscus—that the most talented defensive back on Ole Miss’ roster was healthy. Eleven months and two surgeries later, the star Rebel defender is still working his way back.
“I would say 90 percent,” Conner told reporters on Tuesday when asked to appraise his recovery. “I’m feeling good. If we had a game tomorrow, I’m willing to go.”
The good news is that after sitting out spring practice, Conner’s been taking the majority of reps with the starters during fall camp. He said he no longer feels pain in the knee, which is currently being protected by a brace that he may have to wear all season.
Conner went under the knife three days after suffering the original injury last September and was back on the field seven weeks later. But after suffering through games against Arkansas and LSU, he was shelved for good to undergo more extensive surgery in December. The defense struggled to replace him, ranking 105th in the country in passing yards allowed per game.
It’s hard to overstate the impact Conner has from the husky position. His playmaking ability is unmatched. His versatility—which allows him to run stride-for-stride downfield with a slot receiver one play and come off the edge to drop a runner in the backfield the next—is the fulcrum on which Dave Wommack’s 4-2-5 defense pivots. Perhaps most importantly on a defense that might start a transfer middle linebacker and two underclassmen at the safeties, the rangy Conner is capable of erasing the mistakes of his teammates.
That’ll be particularly important when the Rebs head to Orlando to face the most explosive running back in the country, Dalvin Cook. I wrote last week that hobbled strong-side defensive end Fadol Brown will be critical in setting the edge and preventing the Florida State superstar from getting outside; when Cook does find those escape routes to the flats, Conner’s athleticism and sure-handed tackling could be the only thing keeping him from going the distance.
“Playing a tailback Week 1 like we’re facing, this guy’s special now,” Hugh Freeze said after Tuesday’s practice. “This guy’s in a different league. You’ve got to get him on the ground in a lot of space, and they create a lot of good plays for him to get him in space. We haven’t tackled extraordinarily well.”
Freeze said the defense struggled to make tackles during last Sunday’s scrimmage, which he’s particularly concerned about because this is typically the time in fall camp that he begins dialing back the live hitting. Contact practices have already taken a toll on the Rebels’ defensive backfield—No. 2 strong safety C.J. Moore is probably done for the season with a torn pectoral and the true freshman sliding into his spot, Deontay Anderson, fractured his wrist over the weekend (though Freeze suggested that Anderson could play with a cast and might not miss any time).
All of which underscores the importance of Conner’s health in the opener and beyond. For the Rebel defense to survive the early gauntlet it faces in September, it likely needs Conner playing at or near 100 percent.