Tony Conner just wanted that damn brace off.
He’d lugged it around through the first two games of the 2015 season, an extra leg weighing him down, keeping him from making the explosive, where-the-hell-did-he-even-come-from? plays that had many experts projecting him as an early-round pick in that spring’s NFL Draft. The minor injury he’d suffered to his right knee in fall camp was just about healed, and he wanted to be unleashed.
And this was Bama. Conner had gone to Ole Miss—just a 20-minute ride down Highway 6 from his hometown of Batesville—to help “put Mississippi on the map,” and there was no better way to do that than to shock Nick Saban for a second consecutive season... this time in Tuscaloosa. Conner petitioned a wary training staff, which wanted to see how he looked in pregame warmups before clearing him to shed the brace.
“I’m good,” he told them.
It was early in fourth quarter that the helmeted head of Derrick Henry, trailed by 247 pounds of Heisman-winning force, slammed into the side of Conner’s right knee.
Cartilage tore. The trajectory of Conner’s football career shifted.
Ole Miss had a Big Three—Laremy Tunsil, Laquon Treadwell and Robert Nkmediche— walk across the NFL Draft stage in Chicago last April, but it was a Big Four that arrived in Oxford in the wake of Hugh Freeze’s historic 2013 signing class. Conner, a five-star safety, was just 18 spots behind Treadwell in the overall national recruiting rankings and was every bit the pro prospect.
Conner snagged an interception on the very first defensive snap of his freshman season. Instinctual and explosive with the ability to charge into the flat to stonewall a running back on one play and turn and follow a slot receiver downfield on the next, he was the prototype for the linebacker/safety/nickelback hybrid deployed by the Rebels’ 4-2-5 defense. A 215-pound cruise missile with an uncanny ability to arrive at the right spot at the right time, Conner made a name for himself by obliterating ballcarriers and receivers who had the misfortune of wandering into his area of the field.
A Freshman All-American in 2013, Conner ranked second on the team in tackles and led all SEC defensive backs in tackles for loss as a sophomore. A 2015 NFL.com article named him the second most physical player in college football. Heading into his junior season, he was among the most dangerous defensive playmakers in the country.
The blow to Conner’s knee tore his meniscus, the crescent-shaped bit of cartilage that disperses friction between the femur and tibia while providing structural support. Doctors gave him a choice: 1) undergo season-ending surgery and get a head-start on recovery or 2) postpone the major surgery and undergo a lesser arthroscopic procedure that would put him back on the field that season.
The Rebels were in legitimate contention for an SEC title for the first time in decades. Conner was a highly-touted prospect with the opportunity to play his way into the early rounds of the draft.
“I’d been watching the games on TV and I told them I wanted to get back and get it scoped,” Conner said. “I was trying to get back out there and play with my brothers.
“I was rushing back into it.”
Conner sat out the next six games before being cleared to play against Arkansas, but wasn’t healthy enough to make an impact as the Hogs racked up 605 yards of offense. After watching Conner struggle through one more game against LSU, trainers shelved him for the remainder of the season. He had a second operation weeks later.
As his high-profile classmates declared for the 2016 NFL Draft, Conner opted to return for his senior season. He started all 12 games at his safety/linebacker hybrid role, but working his way back was a challenge. The brace, strapped to his right leg for the entire season, was weighing him down again, as were the doubts that crept into his mind every time he went into a hard cut or saw a helmet flashing toward his knee. He was doing the worst thing a player so reliant on instinct could do: thinking.
That damn brace is finally off again.
Conner ran, cut and jumped unencumbered while training for Ole Miss’ pro day earlier this month. He says the knee is healthy. He feels like himself.
If that’s the case, some NFL team is primed for a steal during this weekend’s draft. A healthy Conner is the type of physical, rangy defender that pro teams crave and his experience playing different positions at Ole Miss gives him the added versatility to fill multiple roles at the next level (Conner sees himself as a strong safety but says he’s willing and able to move around).
Still, there’s no doubt that Conner’s path to an NFL field is more difficult than it was prior to that fateful moment in Tuscaloosa 19 months ago. Once considered a lock for the top few rounds, he’s projected to go undrafted this weekend. A year after Tunsil, Treadwell and Nkemdiche saw their NFL dreams illuminated on the brightly-lit stage of the Auditorium Theatre in downtown Chicago, Conner may not hear his name called at all.
But Conner remains determined to follow his classmates into the League, no matter the path, no matter the sacrifice.
“I’m willing to give it my all.”