MOBILE, Ala. – Playing in the shadow of his older brother and the longer shadow of the late Sean Taylor at Miami-Gulliver Prep was quite the challenge for Connor Vernon. This week he hopes to take another step closer towards separating himself in front of the NFL scouts.
Listed at 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds, Vernon’s speed and quickness are his greatest attributes, but coming out of high school he escaped out of the backyard of the University of Miami. That was the program the Duke grad grew up watching and had visions of playing in the Orange Bowl before the Hurricanes left it to play at Sun Life Stadium.
Four years later he leaves the Blue Devils as the Atlantic Coast Conference’s all-time leader in receptions (283) and receiving yards (3,749), surpassing notable receivers like Torry Holt and Herman Moore in the process. His roots were established at Gulliver and he has not forgotten those roots, even though the University of Central Florida was the only state school to recruit him.
“Gulliver was awesome my four years there. My brother (Shane) went there also and I kind of knew everybody in his crowd so when I got to Gulliver everybody kind of already knew who I was,” Vernon said. “Obviously, it has a great tradition with Sean Taylor taking his team to a state championship his senior year and fortunately our senior class went to a state championship also. A lot of good athletes have come through that school and my four years helped me get into Duke so I’m forever thankful for that. It was good to me my four years.”
Vernon has captured the imagination of scouts, coaches and general managers here with his solid route running, sure hands and quickness. He’s the first Duke player to appear in the Senior Bowl since defensive lineman Chris Combs back in 2000 and he’s trying to become the Blue Devil to go in the NFL Draft since 2004 (offensive lineman Drew Strojny by the New York Giants in the seventh round). Clarkston Hines was the last Duke wide receiver to be drafted in 1990.
Thanks to the pro style offense Duke head coach David Cutliffe put in place, Vernon feels comfortable working with an NFL coaching staff this week with the Detroit Lions. He also got to catch a few passes from Peyton Manning over the summer when Manning was working out trying to get ready for what ended up being his first season in Denver with the Broncos.
“That was definitely an experience I’ll remember,” said Vernon, who also got to meet Manning’s brother, Eli, the previous year during the NFL lockout. “We ran an up tempo offense in practice and during games at Duke, which Manning likes to do, so hopefully the NFL scouts can see what I’m capable of doing on the tape.”
On Thanksgiving Weekend this past fall, Vernon had one of his most memorable games against the Miami Hurricanes at home, catching 11 passes for 109 yards and two touchdowns. Duke lost in dramatic fashion, 52-45, in overtime but Vernon still had the comfort of knowing he helped the Blue Devils reach their first bowl game since 1994, the Belk Bowl in Charlotte where they lost, 48-34, to Cincinnati.
Even though he never got to run out of the smoke as a Hurricane, he held on to that game as a career highlight and as yet another strong connection to his native of Miami. Now he hopes to prove that he belongs in the NFL and give himself a chance to perhaps play for his hometown Miami Dolphins.
“Growing up I was always a Dolphins fan and enjoyed tailgating,” Vernon said. “Miami was fun and I wouldn’t change it for the world. I grew up great and there’s a lot of tradition there. It was a lot of fun on Saturdays and Sundays and I saw a lot of games in the Orange Bowl but I did see a few Dolphins games at that stadium, even though it was a bit more of a drive from our home in Key Biscayne.”
Between Vernon, Michigan’s Denard Robinson (Deerfield Beach) and FIU’s Jonathan Cyprien (North Miami Beach), there is a pretty strong local flavor here in Alabama this time of year.
ARKANSAS QB WILSON NOT LOOKING BACKWARDS
By the end of his junior season, University of Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson’s stock was on the rise thanks to the Razorback rolling to an 11-2 record and a berth in the SEC Championship Game. Both of their losses came against eventual national champion Alabama.
The 6-2, 218-pound Wilson returned for his senior year partially due to the strong quarterback class in last year’s NFL Draft, led by Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and current Miami Dolphins quarterback
Arkansas went 4-8, including blowout losses to Alabama (52-0), Texas A&M (58-10) and Mississippi State (45-14). Wilson’s numbers weren’t much different from 2011, as he completed 249-of-401 passes for 3,387 yards, 21 touchdowns and 13 interceptions for a passer rating of 143.8. His junior season he was 277-of-438 for 3,638 yards, 24 touchdowns and six interceptions for a passer rating of 148.4. The Arkansas native is hoping NFL scouts pay more attention to that than the win-loss record.
“I didn’t change. My name’s the same, I still talk the same and I still think I can throw the ball pretty good,” Wilson said. “All that said, I’d like to just show them that I’m still the same guy and it was a tough situation last year and I’d like to try to continue this same thing and have a great career.”
The fact that he competed in arguably the toughest conference in college football in the SEC should benefit Wilson.
ODDS AND ENDS
In what had to be a surreal moment for Denard Robinson, he was greeted on the field after this morning’s practice former Miami Dolphins and West Virginia quarterback Pat White. The posed for some photos and chatted briefly, with Robinson giddy over meeting the man whose NCAA record for career rushing yards by a quarterback he broke. “He’s the one who made me think I could play quarterback in college so that’s an honor to meet someone like that,” Robinson said. “He’s the one who motivated me to do it.” … Robinson took off the yellow non-contact jersey for the first time this week and ran routes during live drills, trying to stay competitive with the likes of Kansas State’s Chris Harper and Oregon State’s Markus Wheaton. Those two really stood out with some quality catches. … Harvard fullback Kyle Jusczyk drew some audible reactions with his burst up the middle on an inside handoff and broke some tackles in the second level. … As usual this time during the week, there were some roster changes as some players were added to replace others that left either due to injury or other reasons. University of Miami running back Mike James was added to the South roster today and practiced in the afternoon, becoming the only Hurricane in the game.