Among those watching the first round of the NFL draft and the surreal events that took place around the Ole Miss program was Tony Conner.
After all, Conner was supposed to be in Chicago with his teammates that night. He was supposed to hear his name called. Instead, the Rebels defensive back watched from home as Laremy Tunsil, Laquon Treadwell and Robert Nkemdiche all walked up on stage, greeted the NFL commissioner and held up the jersey that represented their new team, their next chapter in life.
In spite of all the drama surrounding the program, Ole Miss still saw a school-record three players picked in the first round. And if not for a torn meniscus that he suffered last September at Alabama, Conner might have made it four.
“It’s an honor, coming in here with those guys a couple years ago,” Conner said. “It’s a blessing for those guys to be top draft picks. Everything doesn’t happen your way. Some things come up and sometimes you have to deal with those things. I wish those guys the best.
“For me, it will just be another year.”
Conner arrived in Oxford with the other three as part of the now-famous 2013 recruiting class. All four players were ranked among the top 25 in the ESPN 300 that year – Nkemdiche No. 1, Tunsil No. 5, Treadwell No. 19 and Conner No. 24. All had dreams of one day playing in the NFL, and all had intentions of realizing that dream after just three years at Ole Miss.
Like the others, Conner was well on his way. He appeared in every game as a freshman and as a sophomore. He combined for 135 tackles, 14 tackles for loss, two sacks and two interceptions. Many thought he would leave early with another strong campaign in 2015.
“I never had it in my mind to leave early, but it depended on how my season would’ve went,” Conner said.
His season didn’t go very far, not after the meniscus tear in Week 3. Rather than have surgery on it right away, he waited. He hoped he could return to the lineup later in the season, hoped he could still help the team. But after giving it a go – unsuccessfully – against Arkansas two months later, he and the coaches agreed it was time to shut it down.
“It was obvious -- after the Alabama win, when we lost him and C.J. Johnson and Issac Gross -- our defense was not the same the remainder of the year,” Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said. “So to get him back, a healthy Tony Conner, would make a huge, huge difference on our defense [in 2016].”
Over the last two months, while his former teammates had been busy prepping for the NFL draft, Conner was rehabbing. He was running in the pool. He was lifting weights. He was pushing the sled. And last week, he reached another milestone when he ran on grass for the first time.
According to Freeze, there were no signs of irritation or swelling in Conner's knee.
“Rehab is going great right now,” Conner said. “I think [the injury] was the best thing that could’ve ever happened to me. Before, in the weight room, I was kind of strong, but I wasn’t as strong as I am now. I’m just trying to get stronger and better at what I do.”
Conner believes he’ll be back to 100 percent by the beginning of fall camp. Then maybe this time next year, he will hear his name called at the NFL draft.
"If God willing, I’m looking forward to that," Conner said. "But I still have this offseason to continue to work and then go into fall camp. So as of right now, I’m not thinking ahead to that."