Cats to try fullback Conner at tight end

ccosby@herald-leader.comSeptember 24, 2009 

For the past four years, John Conner has been Mr. Reliable for the University of Kentucky offense.

Conner, a 5-foot-11, 240-pound fullback, doesn't get his hands on the ball much for the Wildcats. But when they're in a pinch, they aren't afraid to go to Conner. It could be a big goal-line or short-yardage carry or a catch out of the backfield, but when UK head coach for offense Joker Phillips calls Conner's number, he almost always delivers.

Conner, who missed the season-opening 42-0 blowout of Miami (Ohio), came through for Kentucky in its 31-27 win over Louisville. The Cats faced a fourth-and-1 from the Louisville 25 in the second quarter, and Conner burst 23 yards off right guard to the U of L 2. He bulled up the middle for a score on the next play to give UK a 17-7 lead.

Now, UK Coach Rich Brooks appears ready to reward Conner for years of productivity with an expanded role in the offense, saying at his weekly news conference that he'll start using Conner more as a tight end when UK goes to two-tight-end sets.

Brooks estimated that UK uses a fullback out of the I-formation on just 20 to 25 percent of its plays and said Conner needs to be on the field much more than that. The staff had planned before the season to work Conner in at tight end, but he suffered a high-ankle sprain that kept him out of the season opener.

"He is too good of a player to have on the sideline when we're not in a two-back set all the time," Brooks said. "We need to find a different way to get him on the field."

UK's tight ends had minimal impact in the Louisville game. T.C. Drake had one catch for 6 yards. While Conner is a little shorter than a prototypical tight end, he excels as a blocker and pass-catcher.

"We think John Conner's playing better than the tight ends right now," Phillips said. "And he's only getting 18 plays while they get 40-something. What kind of sense does that make? We feel like we've got to get him in the game and get him to touch the ball."

Conner has touched the ball only 46 times in his UK career, but he's scored five touchdowns and made several big carries for first downs. A lot of players with that kind of productivity would gripe about a lack of touches, but Conner just goes with the flow.

"That's the life of a fullback," Conner said. "I know I'm not going to get the ball a whole lot but, when I do get it, I just try and make the most of it."

Conner is also a devastating lead blocker in the backfield and on kickoff returns and is a key cog on the punt-coverage unit.

"He makes life easy for the rest of us," senior tailback Alfonso Smith said. "I have a whole lot more confidence with John Conner in front of me. He strikes fear in the opponents."

Special teams coach Steve Ortmayer said Conner's blocking helped pave the way for Derrick Locke's 100-yard kickoff return and Alfonso Smith's 35-yard return to the Louisville 48-yard line in the third quarter.

"John Conner was as responsible for the kickoff returns as anybody," Ortmayer said. "You can quote me. John Conner is the real deal."

Conner is also extremely popular with his teammates. Smith went as far as to call Conner the "best overall player on the team, hands down."

"He's a great guy who's well-rounded, works hard," Smith said. "He's got size, speed, strength, everything."

Brooks, Phillips and Ortmayer all say Conner has a future in the NFL.

"He does all the things that NFL teams ask their fullbacks to do," Phillips said. "He blocks. He catches the ball. And when you need him to make a carry in short yardage, he almost always picks up first downs. He's going to have a long career in the league."

Wilson returns to practice

UK freshman linebacker Ridge Wilson has returned to practice, and Brooks said he'll make a decision about possible reinstatement sometime this week. Wilson was suspended indefinitely after being charged with fourth-degree assault for allegedly striking a woman on the UK campus. He is scheduled for a pretrial hearing Oct. 1.

Lanxter probably outfor Florida game

Junior receiver Kyrus Lanxter (hamstring) did not practice Wednesday and is likely to miss his second straight game.

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