In his four-year Duke career, Conner Vernon grew accustomed to rewriting the ACC record books and helping to rebuild a program with a past haunted by a number of daunting streaks.
When Vernon suited up for the South team in Saturday’s 64th annual Senior Bowl at Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile, Ala., not only did he become the first Blue Devil to participate in the showcase since Chris Combs in 1999, but he also took a major step toward becoming the first Duke player selected in the NFL Draft since 2004.
Vernon’s numbers—four catches for 36 yards on the afternoon—were neither eye-popping nor pedestrian, but the former Blue Devil wide receiver made the most of his limited opportunities and finished with the most receptions on his squad in the South’s 21-16 victory against the North.
“We knew there were a lot of players to get on the field here, and everybody was going to get around the same number of reps,” Vernon said. “I just had to try to make the most of it. I took a lot of special teams reps, and that’s not something I did a lot of in college but will have to get used to at the next level. So overall, it was a great experience.”
Former Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson got Vernon involved early and often in the South’s offense, finding him three times on Vernon’s first offensive possession of the game. The duo had been paired frequently in practice drills throughout the week leading up to the Senior Bowl and were able to show off their timing.
“That first day of practice it was really different,” Vernon said. “It was basically my first time being thrown to by a guy that was not [former Duke quarterback] Sean [Renfree] in four years. It was definitely a little different but by the end of the week we were feeling really comfortable with each other.”
In addition to showcasing the talents of college football’s top seniors, the Senior Bowl allows participants to be led onto the field by NFL coaches for the first time. The North squad was led by Oakland Raiders head coach Dennis Allen and his staff and Vernon’s South team was coached by staff of the Detroit Lions, led by head coach Jim Schwartz.
Vernon said that even though the practice regiments of the NFL coaches were rigorous, he drew a lot of similarities between their techniques and those employed by Duke head coach David Cutcliffe.
Off the practice field, Vernon was able to meet with representatives from a number of NFL teams during the week. The lax restrictions allowed him to conduct impromptu interviews with his potential future employers throughout the week.
“You would just walk into the lobby of the hotel, and they would grab you,” Vernon said. “They would ask to sit down with you and talk and some teams were more interested than others, but for the most part they were all great interviews.”
Now with the Senior Bowl behind him, Vernon will return to his hometown Miami where he will continue his pre-draft preparation. Since his graduation at the conclusion of the Fall semester, Vernon has worked with Tony Villani of XPE Sports in Boca Raton, Fla.
The next stop for Vernon will be the NFL Scouting Combine Feb. 20 in Indianapolis. Vernon has already accepted his invitation to the combine and will be able to show off his skills in front of a host of NFL executives, coaches and scouts.