DURHAM, N.C. - After closing a decorated career with the Blue Devils, former Duke standout wide receiver Conner Vernon has set his sights on a professional football career. The ACC’s all-time leader in both receptions and receiving yardage, Vernon is representing Duke in Mobile, Ala., this week at the prestigious Senior Bowl, which will be televised live by the NFL Network on Saturday at 4 p.m. (ET).
In 48 career games at Duke, Vernon caught 283 passes for 3,749 yards and 21 touchdowns and established ACC records for career pass receptions, career receiving yardage, most consecutive games with at least one pass reception (48), most seasons with 50-plus receptions (4) and most seasons with 70-plus receptions (3). On the NCAA's career charts, he ranks 23rd for career catches and 24th for career receiving yards.
A native of Miami, Fla., Vernon finished his career holding or sharing 30 school records.
GoDuke.com recently caught up with the recent Duke graduate.
GoDuke.com: What have you been up to since last month’s Belk Bowl? Conner Vernon: I’ve been down in Florida at a facility called XPE [Sports] and Tony Villani is the head speed trainer here. We’ve got a good group of guys here. There’s about 18 of us down here and a lot of familiar faces, a lot of ACC guys – [Clemson’s] Andre Ellington, [North Carolina’s] Kevin Reddick, [Florida State’s] E.J. Manuel, [N.C. State’s] David Amerson, [Miami’s] Brandon McGee. It’s been a good move, a lot of familiar faces.
GoDuke.com: What are your goals for the upcoming Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala.?
CV: Just to do what I’ve done at the last four years at Duke. Just go out there and showcase my talent and try to impress a bunch of scouts at the next level. Also, bring some more exposure to Duke football.
GoDuke.com: What is the best advice you’ve received about embarking on a potential professional career?
CV: One of our coaches down here and he’s actually a mentor to us is Cris Carter. He’s told us a lot about the NFL and what to expect and how to carry yourself and what not. It’s a different level. [He told us] there’s going to be people who act like your best friend and they don’t even know you. Present yourself and carry yourself well because you kind of live under a microscope now, and every move you make could make or break your career. It could end your career before you even get started.
GoDuke.com: Although you are just a few weeks removed from your incredible Duke career, what will you remember most about your time in Durham?
CV: Duke was really good to me. I can’t really pinpoint one thing because I created a lot of good memories. It’s been great. I’ve seen on Twitter and Facebook now a bunch of guys tweeting about getting back to work for spring workouts. I miss that. It was always fun to start the next season. It’s honestly a weird feeling not being back there right now just because I was so used to it the last four years. So I’m definitely going to miss those guys. It’s a good group of guys and the coaches are great. Just Duke in general, I’m going to miss it.
GoDuke.com: What is your reaction when you hear or read that Conner Vernon is the most prolific receiver in the history of the Atlantic Coast Conference?
CV: Now that I’ve stepped back and thought about it, to be honest, it’s crazy. It’s kind of a weird feeling, to know that my name as well as the Duke name sits at the top of the list of such a class of good receivers that have come through the ACC. Duke gave me that opportunity to play this game.
GoDuke.com: Of your ACC record 283 career receptions, which is the first that comes to mind?
CV: I would say my first catch ever against Richmond. I was kind of standing there and didn’t really know what to expect, and all of a sudden Coach [Scottie] Montgomery grabs my shoulder and throws me in there, and I didn’t know what to do. I’m kind looking around like, ‘Oh man, oh man, oh man.’ I remember the play exactly – I ran a post out and Thad [Lewis] put a great ball down the sideline and I just made the catch. After that, the rest is history.
GoDuke.com: How do you hope the 2012 Duke football team will be remembered?
CV: The 2012 team did make Duke history. Yes, it wasn’t the outcome we wanted, but I hope people will realize that that team did a lot of things that Duke didn’t do often –beat North Carolina, be relevant in the ACC again and get into a bowl. And also doing that, dealing with the adversity that we had to deal with. Dealing with Blair [Holliday]’s situation at the beginning of the year and the Mrs. [Geri] Collins situation at the end of the year. It was overall just a tough, tough season not only on the field but also off the field. The way that we dealt with that and handled that, I thought, really showed what kind of team we were in the sense of how we really were a family. That’s something I’ll always remember.
GoDuke.com: What were the key components in advancing the Duke program to its current level?
CV: It’s been monumental. From the day I stepped onto campus to where that program is now has been unbelievable, to be honest. Just from facilities to kids getting recruited. It’s a different program from when I first stepped on campus, and I love to see it. Coach Cutcliffe, his track record speaks for itself. He’s the best in the business and I think Duke can only go up from here.
GoDuke.com: What is your advice to the 2013 Duke team?
CV: Now the bar is set for Duke football. I think anything less than competing for an ACC Championship and a bowl game is unacceptable in a season. Four wins, five wins isn’t going to be acceptable anymore. A new bar has been set. The senior class set that bar, and now it’s up to the next class to set the bar even higher.
GoDuke.com: What will be the keys for this group to sustain or even elevate the program’s success from last season?
CV: Just stay together. Every day, work. They’ve just got to know, especially being around other guys now, it’s an all-the-time thing. They preach a lot about that. They’ve got to remember that when they’re sitting around doing nothing, they’ve just got to be working. Keep working, keep focus. They can’t have any off the field troubles. But stay focused and stay on track. The sky’s the limit for them. They bring a lot of talent back.
GoDuke.com: You obviously saw firsthand, every day, what kind of player Jamison Crowder is – how good can he be?
CV: I think he could be the next great receiver at Duke. He already made his stamp this past year and it’s only going to go up from there. Now he just has to work every day to get that much better because he has made his stamp, not only at Duke but also to the rest of the league. I know the rest of the ACC is going to have to respect him greatly, so he’s just going to have to work that much harder to get that much better because they’ll be a lot of attention focused on him now. That’s what separates the good ones from the great ones – how they handle that. He’s going to have to step in and be a leader to the other receivers. Being a junior, he’s kind of the old man of the group now. They have a young group of receivers, and he’s got to step in and be great. I know that’s what he can do and what he will do.
GoDuke.com: What is the most important thing people should know about David Cutcliffe?
CV: He’s more than just a coach. He’s a father figure, to be honest. Every single day when he comes in that building, it’s ‘I’m here to help my kids.’ He looks at us as one of his own, he’s always looking out for us. I think people need to know he’s more than a coach. He’s trying to coach guys into better men as opposed to football players.
GoDuke.com: What was Coach Cutcliffe’s influence on your life as a student-athlete?
CV: I’ll never forget, one of the things he always said was, ‘God only gave you two things in this world – existence and opportunity. And what you do with that opportunity is up to you.’ And that’s something I always took, from the moment I heard it to now. I’ve taken that from football to life – every opportunity that’s been thrown my way, I’ve taken full advantage of it. It’s been a reason why I became the most prolific receiver in ACC history. Every opportunity I’m given now, like the next step in my life is to try and play in the NFL. If I’m given an opportunity to play in this league, I’ve got to make the best of that opportunity. It’s totally up to me, and that’s my mindset every single day. I’ll never forget when he told us that, and I’ve taken that with me for the last four years now.
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