Conner Vernon stands on the precipice of football history. If Duke’s senior wide receiver stays healthy and continues to perform at the level he’s established in his first three seasons, Vernon will become the all-time leading receiver in Duke — and ACC — history.DURHAM --
Yet, when asked about the prospects of climbing to the top of the record books, the Blue Devil standout has a different goal in mind.
“My goal is — just like everybody else — is to play in Charlotte at the end of the year,” he said. “That’s definitely the number one goal for me and for this team. I know if that’s the case, the other records will definitely come with it. But I’m just focused on the record at the end of Duke’s name. If the other records come, great. And if they don’t…well, I think I’ve had a pretty good career as it is.”
Actually, “pretty good” is a bit of an understatement. In three seasons, Vernon has already caught the second most passes in Duke history, for the second most yards. He already ranks seventh in ACC career receptions and 16th in ACC career yardage. He’s the only player in ACC history with back-to-back 70-catch seasons. He’s twice been selected as a second-team All-ACC performer and last month in Greensboro, he was projected as a first-team All-ACC pick in 2012.
Not bad for a kid who couldn’t generate any recruiting interest from his hometown team.
“Growing up in Miami, you always want to play for the Hurricanes,” he said. “Those ’01 and ’02 teams were so much fun to watch. You just wanted to be them — those teams were just so, SO good. And I was 10-11 years old. That’s when I really started loving football.”
But even though Vernon enjoyed a brilliant high school career at Miami’s Gulliver Prep, the only contacts he had with the ‘Canes were a few pro forma recruiting letters. Neither Florida nor Florida State were interested either. Hometown Florida International ignored him too. UCF was the only Florida school to show interest.
But it didn’t take Duke’s David Cutcliffe long to see that Vernon was something special.
“I had him in camp and I went ‘Holy Smoke, is this young man special!’” the Blue Devil coach said. “Conner won every one-on-one bout he was in. He could run, he could catch it…you know he came in and played as a true freshman.”
Indeed, Vernon caught four passes for 48 yards in his first college game. He finished his freshman season with 55 catches for 746 yards (both numbers rank among the top 20 seasons in Duke history), then followed that with 73 catches for 973 yards as a sophomore (tied for the second most receptions and the sixth most yards in Duke history) and 70 catches for 956 yards (the fourth most catches and the seventh most yards) as a junior.
Vernon’s 198 career receptions trail only his former teammate Donovan Varner on Duke’s career list. His 2,675 yards trail only former All-America Clarkston Hines for career receiving yardage. He should pass both former players — and the ACC leaders in those departments — this year.
The mileposts up ahead:
• With his 10th catch this season, Vernon will pass Varner’s school record of 207 career catches.
• With his 35th catch this season, Vernon will pass the ACC record of 232 career catches set by Clemson’s Aaron Kelly (2005-08).
• With his 644th yard receiving, Vernon will pass Hines’ school record of 3,318 receiving yards.
• With his 843rd yard receiving, Vernon will pass the ACC record of 3,517 yards set by FSU’s Peter Warrick (1996-99).
Cutcliffe has no doubt that his senior wide receiver will blow past those milestones.
“And I think when he does set that record, becoming the all-time leading receiver in the history of the ACC, that’s no accident. That’s one of those records that mean something…that’s a special player accomplishing something special.”
But what makes Vernon so special?
Physically, there doesn’t seem to be a reason that Vernon is so superior. At 6-foot-1, 200 pounds, he has good, but not exceptional, size for a receiver. And while he reportedly runs a sub-4.5 40, he’s not the fastest receiver to play in the ACC.
Cutcliffe argues that too many people dismiss Vernon’s physical attributes.
“Conner is fast and he’s strong,” the Duke coach said. “For people to confuse Conner with just being a smart player or a possession player (is wrong). He’s a really gifted athlete. He’s very strong. He’s extremely fast. He’s been a great deep ball threat for us since he’s been here. We need to hit him more with deep balls.”
Yet, even if Vernon is deceptively athletic, there’s got to be more to it than that. He’s caught a lot more passes than many more physically gifted players.
Cutcliffe sees a unique attribute to Vernon’s game.
“Conner is the most fearless wide receiver I’ve ever coached,” the veteran head coach said. “I’ve never had a player who could make tough catches as consistently as Conner Vernon does. I think he’s an All-American football player.”
Vernon was asked the source of his fearlessness on the football field.
“I’m a believer in the idea that you’re going to get hit whether you catch it or not, so why not catch it?” he answered. “Even if the ball goes through your hands, you’re still going to get hit. I don’t have a problem going over the middle. That’s just the nature of the game.”
Some of Vernon’s toughness may stem from his upbringing. He started out as a running back and only switched to wide receiver when he reached high school.
“I actually wanted to play running back to be honest,” he said. “My brother and I went to the same high school and they figured he played receiver, so they kind of made the switch for me.”
Conner learned the game as he worked out with his older brother Shane. When he was 12 or 13 years old, their father bought a Jugs gun that would fire footballs at high speed.
“I took a few to the face,” Vernon said. “He would always shoot my brother (Shane) balls when I was in high school and I would go out there with him. I’d catch as many as I could. That helped me. That’s something we tried to implement this offseason for all our receivers. We have a Jugs gun and three times a week use it to focus on catching the ball. It makes our hands better.”
A RECORD-SETTING CAREER
Of course, any kind of record-setting endeavor requires a combination of favorable factors to ensure a favorable outcome. In Vernon’s case, his physical skill and his fearlessness are vital factors.
But there are several others that have worked in his favor:
(1) System — Obviously, Duke’s star wide receiver would not be in this position without Cutcliffe’s pass-oriented offense. Paul Johnson’s Georgia Tech teams have featured some extremely talented wide receivers, but none are going to put up eye-opening numbers in a wishbone offense. Nobody who played for Bill Dooley’s tailback-oriented offense at UNC in the ‘70s could hope to post record-setting receiving numbers.
Duke throws the ball a lot under Cutcliffe and that gives Vernon a lot of chances.
But that’s not the whole explanation.
The fact is that there have been A LOT of pass-happy teams and coaches at Duke and in the ACC over the years. The Blue Devils threw for more yards in the Steve Spurrier era than they have in the last three years under Coach Cut. N.C. State threw for significantly more yards during the Philip Rivers era and just about as many when Jamie Barnette and Russell Wilson were flinging for the Pack. FSU routinely threw for 3,000-plus yards in the 1990s under such quarterbacks as Chris Weinke, Charlie Ward and Danny Kannell. Matt Ryan at Boston College…Scott Milanovich at Maryland…Shawn Moore at Virginia…Joe Hamilton at Georgia Tech…Riley Skinner at Wake Forest have all put up passing numbers that are comparable (or in some cases better) than Duke’s stats during Vernon’s era.
If it was just system, why is Vernon on track to blow past Jerricho Cotchery, an NFL-quality talent who played four years with Philip Rivers?
(2) Durability — To compile huge career numbers, it’s important to stay in the lineup. Vernon has done that. He missed the Kansas game in 2009 with a foot injury, but even though he was hobbled for several weeks afterward, he returned the next week and caught six passes against North Carolina Central. A week after that, he caught four passes for 128 yards against Virginia Tech.
Vernon has played in 35 of 36 games since his arrival at Duke — and has caught at least one pass in every one of them.
His ability to play — and play effectively — when banged up is amazing.
“It’s been a lot of tough injuries and it’s hampered him,” Cutcliffe said. “That he even went back on the field against North Carolina (in 2011), I don’t know how he did it. He ultimately had a long-term serious circumstance from that ankle.”
And it’s not just his willingness to go back in the game with a serious injury.
“I can’t get him off the practice field sometimes,” Cutcliffe said. “He’s one of those guys in August, when everybody else starts straining a hamstring and says ‘I can’t go this afternoon’ he’s always out there. What people don’t understand is that when you get three or four guys out of your rotation, somebody’s got to go multiple times because I’m getting other people ready. But Conner never goes out.”
(3) Work ethic — As Cutcliffe noted, Vernon won’t leave the practice field.
“I come in every day to work and I don’t leave until I’m satisfied with my work, whether it’s catching extra balls or whatever,” Vernon said.
But it goes beyond even practice to the hours that he spends watching film with his roommate — quarterback Sean Renfree.
“We both sit in the film room,” he said. “We’re talking football all the time, especially being roommates. We have a lot of NFL tape we watch to see how they do things up there. Just everyday work — not settling for what you have, trying to get better.”
That lesson was reinforced last fall when NFL quarterback Peyton Manning spent so much time at Duke, rehabbing with his mentor, David Cutcliffe.
“It was good to see him and to see the game through his eyes,” Vernon said. “It was definitely an eye-opening experience to see the passion he has for the game and his attention to detail.”
Vernon is convinced that all his hard work — on the practice field, in the film room and in the weight room — has made him a better player going into his senior year at Duke.
“I’m definitely stronger. I’ve definitely gotten bigger,” he said. “I haven’t lost a step, so it’s definitely a transformation since my freshman year. Being about to get bigger and stronger is going to help me avoid injuries as well.”
THE PATH AHEAD
In order for Vernon to claim the records that are within his reach, he’ll have to continue to be durable and effective.
The first part of that equation is beyond anyone’s control, but the second part may depend on the development of Duke’s young receiving corps. Since last season, the Blue Devils have lost such accomplished receivers as Donovan Varner (graduation) and Brandon Braxton (switched to safety). Blair Holliday, a young receiver with a world of promise, was injured in a tragic accident. And promising tight end Braxton Deaver was sidelined with a knee injury.
Does the loss of so much talent at receiver doom Vernon to a year of smothering double-teams?
“It’s going to be tough, sure, but we’ll definitely have a game plan for it,” Vernon said. “We have a lot of young guys ready to step up. I actually do hope that a lot of these teams try and take me out early, so these younger guys can shine. They have the playmaking ability to do it. And we’re definitely going to take advantage of it, if that’s the case. We have a lot of young talent on this team that we’re going to unleash on this league.”
Cutcliffe said that Vernon has been working hard this summer to prepare his receiving mates.
“His leadership role has changed,” he said. “It’s not just games where you see him. It’s practice. That affects those other receivers.”
Vernon raved about newcomers such as sophomore Jamison Crowder and incoming freshmen Anthony Nash and Max McCaffrey.
“We just have a lot of young guys now who are ready to step up,” he said. “Nash and McCaffrey have to step up and contribute right away. They obviously have a lot to learn, but they’re coming along. They are two different kinds of wide receiver. Nash is a taller, longer type kid, a fast player who is going to be able to stretch the field for us. McCaffrey is more of the crafty guy, who can get into and out of breaks real well and has solid hands.”
Both will have to excel if Duke is going to approach the team goals that Vernon has set for his senior year. The defense will have to gel and the running game will have to improve over recent years. Most of all, the offense will have to do a better job getting into the end zone.
“That’s absolutely been a problem in the past,” he said. “In the red zone, we have to come out with seven points and not just field goals.
“Last year, the difference between 3-9 and a bowl game was seven points or less. [Note: Duke lost four games by a touchdown or less in 2011.] The last two years, there’s never been a doubt in my mind that we were good enough to make a bowl. It’s frustrating because we know we’re better than we’ve played at times.”
It’s an interesting coincidence that Vernon will open his senior season against a team from his hometown (Florida International) and close it against another team from the Magic City (Miami). In a perfect world, he would finish his career against the ‘Canes as the top receiver in Duke and ACC history.
“It would definitely be a humbling honor if I were to see my name on the list of greats that played in this league,” he said. “I’m not going to lie — I’ve thought about it a few times. But at the end of the day, I’m just focused on finishing this year strong and putting a cherry on top of this career.”