UK Football

Fullback Conner UK's invaluable ‘hammerhead'

His name won't jump out on the stat sheet, and he usually doesn't show up in game stories or highlight reels.

Chances are, if you're not a huge follower of University of Kentucky football, you have no idea who John Conner is.

But inside the Wildcats locker room, there might not be a more popular or more respected player.

Conner came to UK in 2005 as a lightly regarded walk-on. Now a 5-foot-11, 230-pound redshirt junior fullback, he has played a large, yet under-appreciated role in the Wildcats' offensive surge the past two seasons.

Many times when Rafael Little or one of the other tailbacks danced in the open field, Conner was the guy in front clearing space. He's also been a friend to the offensive linemen, as he often picks up blitzers or charging defensive linemen and keeps them off the quarterback.

Those things won't get a player on ESPN or YouTube, but they don't go unnoticed by teammates and coaches.

Just listen to some of the UK running backs' testimonials about Conner:

“He's like a pillow,” said senior Tony Dixon. “He makes me feel comfortable when he's in front of me.”

“I'm definitely going to say this: John Conner is one of the best fullbacks in the nation,” said junior Alfonso Smith. “He's proved it in games, in practice, everything. I feel very comfortable running behind him. I feel like I'm not going to get touched.”

Conner does all that dirty work without getting many bones thrown his way. He's carried the ball just eight times in two seasons, usually in goal-line or short-yardage situations.

It's not as if he's incapable running the ball. He rushed for more than 1,000 yards his senior year at Lakota West High School in West Chester, Ohio. And the few times he's carried the ball as a Wildcat he's been productive: two of his eight career carries have gone for touchdowns, and three of his nine career catches have been for scores.

UK offensive coordinator Joker Phillips said the fullback in his offense has to be what he calls a “hammerhead,” a physical player who devotes much of his time to blocking while catching an occasional pass in the flat.

Running backs coach Larry Brinson played tailback for five years in the NFL and has coached running backs for 25 years. He said fullbacks typically have to check their egos at the door, something many young players have a problem doing.

“It's an unselfish position,” Brinson said. “You're playing for your teammates and contributing to winning a game.”

Here's another testament to Conner's popularity on the team: Smith is competing with three other players for carries in a crowded tailback rotation, yet he campaigned for Conner to get more touches.

“I really think he should get more carries,” Smith said. “He can run it, and he's one of the best receivers on the team. Everybody loves John. His attitude is great. He brings it on the field, but he's a nice guy off the field.”

Conner admits he'd like more touches, but he seems to have accepted his role, especially after coming from such humble beginnings as a non-scholarship player.

“It was a struggle coming in as a walk-on because you've got to prove yourself,” Conner said. “I just tried to work my way up the ladder and earn respect from the team. Coming from high school, I got the ball a lot more, but since I've gotten here and played fullback, I've gotten used to it. I wouldn't have a problem with more carries, but I just want to do my job and do whatever I can to help my team.”

Dixon called Conner “a brute” on the field but also said he has the perfect demeanor for a fullback.

“He brings his hard hat and lunch pail every day,” Dixon said. “He's a very humble guy and doesn't say much. He just gets his work done and goes on to the next play.”

Phillips called Conner a “quiet assassin” and a “guy linebackers don't like to see.” Dixon took that analysis a step further.

“The defensive guys try to make agreements with him,” Dixon said. “I'll hear them saying, ‘Don't hit me, today, man.' ”

Senior linebacker Johnny Williams vouched for the fact that nobody on the defense likes to see Conner charging at them.

“I've had a headache all camp from going up against John Conner,” Williams said. “He's the best fullback I've ever gone up against. He's got good technique. He stays low. He's strong.”

And while Conner doesn't get much publicity for his play now, most people around the UK camp say it will ultimately pay off for him down the road.

He has all the prototypical qualities of an NFL fullback (5-foot-11, 230 pounds, good blocker and receiver), and he also ran a 4.5-second 40-yard dash at Pro Day in the spring.

“Those are things that the NFL looks at,” Brinson said. “And that's incentive for John. He realizes that if he can do the things he does at this level, he'll have a chance at the next level.”