DURHAM — It took a perfect storm for Conner Vernon to migrate from Miami to Durham.
And the same can be said about his journey into the ACC record books.
Vernon, the NCAA active leader in career receptions (198), needs 35 catches to pass Clemson’s Aaron Kelly and 843 yards to overtake Florida State’s Peter Warrick and set ACC career records. If he has a statistically average season, he’ll set both marks and have plenty of catches to spare.
“It’s an opportunity that I’ve been given that I probably wouldn’t have at any other school,” Vernon said.
And it’s an opportunity he might have missed had it not been for a late growth spurt.
Growing up on Key Biscayne, a small island 10 miles from downtown Miami, Vernon was surrounded by football. His older brother, Shane, played, and his father, Robert, once worked in the public relations division of the NFL’s New England Patriots. The boys had their own Jugs machine so they could work in more reps after games.
And, like most football-inclined boys from that area, they grew up Miami Hurricanes fans, watching Sean Taylor, Reggie Wayne, Andre Johnson and Ed Reed.
“I was a die-hard Canes fan,” Vernon said. “Going to the Orange Bowl all the time, before they moved to Sun Life Stadium, it was a lot of fun. A lot of good memories in that stadium, saw a lot of football games in that stadium.”
Vernon is a receiver, like many of his favorite Hurricanes, but he started as a running back. Shane, four grades ahead of Conner, was the receiver, and he ultimately spent two seasons as a walk-on at Central Florida in Orlando.
At 5-foot-10 and about 195 pounds during his playing days, Shane would overpower Conner.
“The problem with Conner was always his size,” Shane said. “He was like the runt of his group of friends. We always said it was a shame, because he had all this skill, but his size and speed will never get him where he needs to go.”
At 16, Vernon was 5-8 and 165 pounds. He didn’t pass the eye test for a Division I-caliber receiver.
For many reasons.
“He wouldn’t like me saying this, but he was a bit baby-faced at that point in his life,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said.
And no one was looking at him.
College coaches miss out
Within the span of eight months between his sophomore and junior seasons, Vernon grew to 6-1. And, thanks to his old talent, new size and the tutelage of volunteers and coaches at his high school, Gulliver Prep, Vernon flourished.
People such as Pete Taylor, Sean Taylor’s dad and defensive backs coach at the school, and Sedrick Irvin, who later coached Mark Ingram to the Heisman Trophy at Alabama, helped Vernon improve.
The Miami Herald named Vernon to the second-team all-county squad for Dade County’s smaller schools when he was a junior.
Despite his accomplishments and the seven other members of his class getting Division I attention, Vernon still had no offers and had yet to get a call from an Football Bowl Subdivision school.
“Bob Stoops, (Steve) Spurrier, all those guys were at the school at one time or another, and the coaches would tell them, ‘you need to look at this kid, you need to look at this kid,’ ” Robert Vernon, Conner’s father, said. “And they said, ‘yeah, yeah, we’ll look at him,’ but they didn’t. They took Conner for granted.”
Shane Vernon, who received offers from Football Championship Subdivision or Division II schools, has another theory.
“I knew the stereotypes and stigmas that were in football,” he said. “I got to learn it the hard way. It’s an uphill battle, and you have this white boy stigma. It’s always there, no matter how good you are, what you do, it will always be there, so you’ve just got to stand out that much more.”
Vernon stood out during spring football before his senior year. He was named the sleeper of the Under Armour/Scout combine after he ran a 4.41-second 40-yard dash.
At Gulliver Prep’s spring game, when more than a dozen college coaches were on hand watching his teammates bound for Southern California and the SEC, Vernon caught 10 passes for 180 yards and two touchdowns.
Troy offered a scholarship before that game. Duke and Wake Forest came the next morning.
Scottie Montgomery, then Duke’s wide receivers coach, had been watching Vernon for about a year, mainly because he had made several trips to Gulliver to recruit Donovan Varner, then a defensive back who used to cover Vernon.
“There would be a lot of trash talking in practice, I used to tell him he wasn’t fast enough,” Varner said.
With Varner already committed, Montgomery focused on next year’s target, Vernon.
“I went back in the spring, and he had gotten so much bigger, so much faster, so much quicker, so much stronger,” Montgomery said. “I just thought he was one of the best young men I had seen on the road, period, catching the football. There was just a natural ability you can’t coach.
“He definitely has a real close part of my heart,” said Montgomery, now the Pittsburgh Steelers receivers coach, “because he was a guy that was really good that other people may have doubted early.”
Duke among few options
Vernon’s final offer list included Duke, Mississippi, Troy, Vanderbilt and Wake Forest. No Florida school offered a scholarship, not even Central Florida, which had used Shane to try to lure him to campus.
“Growing up, your childhood dream is to come out of the smoke for the Hurricanes,” Vernon said. “And I would have liked to stay in Florida to be close to my family. But I didn’t have an option to stay there.”
While visiting Wake Forest, he nearly committed but held off because he promised his mother she could see every school, and she hadn’t seen Duke.
Meanwhile, Cutcliffe and Montgomery worked hard to build relationships with Vernon and his family. Montgomery, who graduated from Duke in 1998 and played three years in the NFL, told him to come to Duke, wear his number . (2) and break his records.
As a former quarterbacks coach, Cutcliffe knew what he wanted in a receiver. When Vernon was at Duke’s summer camp, the former runt passed Cutcliffe’s eye test.
“When I saw Conner in person, I knew,” he said. “I saw the suddenness. It’s not just speed, which he has, but it’s his ability to stick your foot in the ground and be sudden on the change of direction.”
After listening to Cutcliffe, Montgomery, Varner and former Duke quarterback Thaddeus Lewis, also a Miami native, Vernon committed in July 2008. He also remembered advice his father gave him, something he learned with the Patriots in 1980.
“My dad always told me, if Duke or another very prestigious academic school came knocking, I really want you to consider it just because football isn’t forever,” he said.
“He saw how much of a business it was, even back then, and even more so now, just because of how much more money is involved. He saw guys who were there without college degrees, and then they’d get cut and have nothing.”
A happy homecoming
Conner now stands 6-1, weighs 200 pounds and sports a beard. The little brother Shane used to work over in the front yard is all grown up.
“I could’ve gone a little easier on him, but, in hindsight, if I would’ve, he probably wouldn’t be in the position he’s in to get these records,” Shane said.
Conner’s impact was immediate. He caught four passes in his first career game and set Duke freshman records for receptions (55) and yards (746). He will leave Duke with an English degree and what Montgomery pitched to him four years ago: all of his records.
“It was a blessing for Duke that his growth spurt happened when it happened,” Montgomery said. “If he would have been 6-foot-1, 6-foot-2 as a sophomore and had that growth spurt early, he probably would have ended up at Southern Cal, Florida, Georgia or LSU – one of those top five teams at that time.
“Because I think that’s the type of talent he had coming out of high school.”
Last season, Vernon played against Miami in the stadium he had visited many times during his childhood. He caught five passes, including one for a touchdown. He didn’t come out of the smoke, but he’s standing in the spotlight.
“We used to wait after every UM game, an hour to two hours, for the players to come out so we could get their gloves and wristbands,” Shane said. “And now, there are kids waiting for him.”