NFL Draft

Connor Vernon's big jump from Duke to the NFL

lkeeley@newsoobserver.comApril 21, 2013 

  • NFL Draft

    TV: ESPN, NFL Network

    Thursday, 8 p.m.

    Round 1

    Friday, 6:30 p.m.

    Rounds 2-3

    Saturday, Noon

    Rounds 4-7

    Panthers’ draft picks: Round 1: 14, Round 2: 12, Round 4: 11, Round 5: 15, Round 6: 14

    NFL NEWS: Jets trade Darrelle Revis to Bucs. 2C

— When Conner Vernon committed to Duke as an 18-year-old freshman in 2008, his recruiter, Scottie Montgomery, was the primary reason. So it was fitting, in a way, that Montgomery would return to Duke and be the last collegiate coach to train Vernon before he began his professional career.

Montgomery left Duke after Vernon’s freshman year to coach wide receivers for the Pittsburgh Steelers. He refined his coaching style on guys like Hines Ward, Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown. The basic tenet remained the same: coach them hard, hold nothing back.

That’s the attitude he brought to workouts with Vernon, too, as they trained for about a month in preparation for the NFL draft, which runs Thursday-Saturday, and ensuing team workouts. Vernon, projected as a mid- to late-round pick, will likely hear his name called on the final day.

“I beat him down in day one and then I beat him down again in day two, and he was calling the next day to find out when we work again,” Montgomery said. “I’m going to push you, I’m going to say four more reps but it really means seven. I’m going to mentally try and make you quit. And he knows that. But his passion and intensity for the position and for what he’s trying to do in the National Football League, he showed that. I was impressed.”

After Duke’s season concluded, Vernon worked out near his Miami home with guys like Florida State’s E.J. Manual, Clemson’s Andre Ellington and North Carolina’s Kevin Reddick in preparation for the Senior Bowl and NFL combine. Once those events had been successfully completed – he led the South team in catches and drew praise for his route running ability at the combine – he returned to Duke.

And Montgomery, who had come back to Duke as the associate head coach and passing game coordinator in February, was waiting for him.

“You could tell he had learned a lot of up there (in Pittsburgh) and brought it back to the table, helping me for the draft and this whole training,” Vernon said. “We were doing NFL-related stuff, so it was like getting a jump start on things, because he would teach me stuff he was doing with his receivers in Pittsburgh.”

Vernon lifted weights and worked on his agility with strength coach Noel Durfey and his staff in the morning. Then he spent the afternoon with Montgomery, getting back into football shape.

“I don’t know how to get guys ready for drills and shuttles,” Montgomery said. “What we did was spend a lot of time on positional football drills. Tons and tons of footwork, sometimes to the point of where he was just exhausted. We didn’t even have to move out of a 20-yard square.”

The goal of the monthlong workouts was to prepare for the minicamps and optional team activities (OTAs) Vernon will do with his future NFL team. The April workout with Peyton and Eli Manning, along with professional receivers from the Broncos and Giants, was like a warm-up minicamp, with two-a-day practices at intense speeds.

Before the Manning brothers left town, both praised Vernon, with Peyton saying he would be a valuable addition to any NFL roster.

“If he wasn’t in physical condition to go out and compete with those guys, then he wouldn’t have been able to do it. But he was,” Montgomery said of Vernon. “And then his feet were awesome. He framed the ball well, he caught it well, tracked it over his outside shoulder like you wouldn’t believe.”

Now all Vernon can do is wait to hear his name called. He readily says he wishes the draft would just come and go so he can get started on his professional career.

Vernon likely won’t be the only recent Duke graduate in an NFL camp this summer, as former teammate Sean Renfree has drawn interest from all 32 teams and could possibly be drafted in the late rounds. Renfree has been in Arizona rehabbing a torn right pectoralis major muscle he suffered on the last pass of his collegiate career.

Renfree, who never enjoyed the media spotlight in college, did not return calls or texts for comment.

Montgomery isn’t concerned with where Vernon lands – for him, it’s more important to see how his protégée competes.

“I want to make sure that he understands that being drafted or getting placed somewhere, it doesn’t mean anything,” Montgomery said. “You won’t be remembered at all if you don’t play better than where you’re taken.

“What matters is that he goes into wherever he goes and he competes better than the round that he’s taken in.”

Keeley 919-829-4556; Twitter @laurakeeley

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