STAYING ACCOUNTABLE

Colts Outside Linebacker Kavell Conner Made Impact as a Rookie

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INDIANAPOLIS – Kavell Conner wasn't sure what to expect.

This was nine months ago, when Conner arrived in the NFL as a seventh-round selection by the Colts in the 2010 NFL Draft.

Conner, a rookie outside linebacker for the Colts, said he was confident. He thought he could play, and actually, he was pretty sure he belonged in professional football.

But certain?

No, Conner said, he couldn't be certain.

Conner, who played collegiately at Clemson University, said certainty didn't happen until sometime in his rookie season, a season in which he joined a number of previously unknown players who helped the Colts win a seventh AFC South title in eight years.

Now, with the season over, Conner said that much has changed.

Because now as far as making it in the NFL . . .

Conner said it hasn't happened yet.

But he is certain it's possible.

"The key is going out and being focused, always being accountable when your name is called," Conner said recently late in the 2010 season, a season in which the Colts made an NFL-record tying ninth consecutive post-season appearance – and a season on which Colts.com will look back in coming weeks.

"You've always got to be accountable when your name is called, and you have to be reliable."

During the 2010 season, that's just what Conner did.

And he did so in a pressurized situation.

With injuries first to starting middle linebacker Gary Brackett and later to starting weakside linebacker Clint Session, Conner was called on to contribute to a contending team as a rookie. He did that, and not only contributed, he showed himself to be a player with a solid future with the franchise.

After missing four games in October and early November with an injury, he returned and played the final eight games, starting seven in place of Session at outside linebacker. For the season, he had a total of nine starts.

Conner, a seventh-round selection in the 2010 NFL Draft, developed into a quick, solid player, with Colts President Bill Polian late in the season comparing him to former Colts linebacker David Thornton, a starter at outside backer from 2003-05 and a team leader during four seasons with the Colts.

Thornton went on to start four more seasons with the Tennessee Titans.

"I think you're looking at the next David Thornton," Polian said of Conner shortly after the season. "I'm putting him in pretty high cotton there, but this guy is a football player."

Conner, like many rookies and/or lesser known players this past season, said one key to his ability to contribute during his rookie season stemmed from the fact that it was made clear to him upon joining the Colts that such a contribution very possibly could be needed and expected – and sooner rather than later.

When Conner and the rest of the rookie class arrived shortly after last off-season's draft, quarterback Peyton Manning and Brackett spoke to the rookies, and explained that with the Colts, rookies and young players aren't thought of as such, and that the team's 'Next Man Up' approach was critical to its success over the last decade.

Conner said this past season showed how true that was.

"It's definitely real," Conner said. "There are great veterans around here, and everybody has a professional attitude. It kind of trickles down onto the younger guys, and it's the focus. You have to be accountable and responsible to your teammates."

Conner wasn't the only rookie contributing to the linebacker corps. He and second-round selection Pat Angerer each started extensively in the second half of the season, forming an improving young linebacker tandem that helped the Colts improve dramatically against the run in the final quarter of the regular season.

"They play hard," Brackett said of the duo. "There's no lack of effort. Those guys have been getting after it. As rookies, you're going to make mistakes, but those guys have constantly been improving and they've been able to help us."

Conner said while at the beginning of the season he may not have been completely certain how he would fare in the NFL, those concerns fade as the season continued.

"At the beginning, I was a little nervous, just because it was a new level of football and you were going to experience new things," Conner said. "As you play ball, the more you play, I think you gain more confidence the more reps you get. The more experience you get, the more confidence you get."

And somewhere along the line, Conner said that increased confidence became a conviction that while he hasn't yet made it, there's little reason to believe he cannot do so.

"There's a lot I have to work on, and I'm not content," he said. "I just want to come out and get better. I'm just happy I got into a situation where I got to play in my rookie year. I still feel like I can still come out and get better, and that's what I have to work on."

Conner said much of that work will come in the off-season, and it is often said around the Colts that a player makes the biggest jump of his career between Year One and Year Two. Conner, who made significant improvement during the season, said he can see how that theory could hold true.

"I certainly can," Conner said. "You come in as a rookie to a team and you think you know what to do, but you don't. In your second year, you know more. You can definitely see how it would be easier during your second year."

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