DURHAM — If Duke coach David Cutcliffe gave Conner Vernon the chance to play offensive coordinator and pick his record-breaking play, nobody is sure what the decision would be.
“I kind of like all routes,” Vernon said.
When you have caught as many passes as Vernon has in his Duke career, there’s really no reason to be picky. No matter what route he has been running, Vernon has gotten open and held on to just about any football thrown his way.
Taking advantage of the Blue Devils’ pass-happy approach, Vernon, a Miami native, has 227 receptions in three-plus years at Duke. He needs six more catches to pass Clemson receiver Aaron Kelly as the ACC’s career leader.
Considering he has averaged 7.25 receptions in four games this season and 5.8 in his career, there’s a strong chance Vernon will set the record when Duke (3-1) travels to Wake Forest (3-1) on Saturday for its ACC opener at 12:30 p.m.
Regardless of when it happens, it will be an especially satisfying accomplishment for Vernon, who was lightly recruited coming out of high school at Gulliver Prep.
“It’s definitely a humbling experience just to know how many good receivers have played in this league, and to have my name with Duke’s name next to it at the top – it’s a big deal,” he said. “It’s definitely something I’m looking forward to doing.”
Even with 227 catches to his credit, there are some that stand out.
He can recall many of the details around his first, a catch on the sideline against Richmond in the Blue Devils’ opening loss during his freshman year.
A couple of weeks after his debut, Vernon made his first career start when No. 6 Virginia Tech came to Durham. It was after that game, in which he made four receptions for 128 yards, that he first internalized the idea that he could succeed at the college level.
Later that season, Vernon hauled in a 42-yard, go-ahead touchdown pass from Thad Lewis with 3 minutes, 45 seconds remaining against Virginia to propel Duke to a 28-17 victory.
“That’s definitely one I won’t forget,” Vernon said.
More recently, some of his most memorable receptions have come in games played in front of his family and friends in south Florida.
Duke traveled to Florida International and Miami last season, and Vernon, who grew up a Hurricanes fan, combined for 13 catches, 160 yards receiving and two touchdowns in those two games.
His career high for receptions in a game came his sophomore year against Boston College, when he made 12 grabs in a 21-16 loss.
His best overall game also may have come that year when he torched Wake Forest’s secondary for 181 yards receiving and two touchdowns.
If NFL draft projections are to be trusted, it seems Vernon will have a chance to prove his worth in the professional game as a late-round draft pick.
When he interviews with NFL personnel directors after the season, Vernon will be able to tell them that, if all else fails, he’s a possession wide receiver who can be trusted to hold on to the ball.
“I can catch the football when it needs to be caught,” he said. “Any ball thrown my way will definitely be caught. I think that’s what my biggest asset is – my hands.”