Colts Rookie Linebacker Kavell Conner Had to Prove Himself on Way to NFL
INDIANAPOLIS – This was no guarantee. Far from it.
Although Kavell Conner, a rookie outside linebacker for the Colts, excelled at football from an early age, it was no certainty when he arrived at Clemson University five years ago he would someday get a chance at his NFL dream.
For Conner, college was about improvement. Steady improvement.
He didn't start as a freshman, or as a sophomore.
But Conner, who began his career as a highly-recruited high school running back, said what he did do after moving to linebacker upon arrival at Clemson was ascend from a reserve to a starter with a chance at the NFL.
And he did so because of effort and perseverance.
"I had to work my way up the ladder," said Conner, a seventh-round selection by the Colts in the 2010 NFL Draft and one of multiple rookies who will be profiled on Colts.com in the coming weeks.
"I just looked at it as part of the process."
Conner (6-feet-0, 242 pounds) was one of several players obtained by the Colts during or shortly after the NFL Draft capable of playing linebacker in the Colts' defense and contributing on special teams.
Shortly after the draft, Colts President Bill Polian said Conner fit the mold of a Colts linebacker, and compared him to Clint Session, who started for Indianapolis at strongside linebacker in 2008 before moving to the weakside this past season and developing into one of the league's hardest-hitting players at the outside backer position.
"Very similar," Polian said.
He added that Conner is "very smart and very tuned in."
"He can fly around and run and hit guys, which is typical of the kind of linebackers that we like," Polian said.
Conner, who draft analysts projected as either an inside or outside backer, said exactly where he played wasn't as much of a concern as making a contribution somewhere.
"I really don't have a preference," Conner said. "I'm just looking to get in there and learn the system. Wherever I fit best is where I'll play."
Conner, who said there were those who questioned his ability to play Division I football, originally signed with Clemson as a safety. He red-shirted as a freshman, then he moved to linebacker and played as a reserve as a freshman and sophomore in 2006 and 2007.
He had 15 tackles against Auburn in the Chick-fil-A Bowl following his sophomore season, then moved into the starting lineup as a junior.
"Kavell has gotten better and better every year he has been here," Clemson Head Coach Dabo Swinney told the Clemson game program last season. "From a coaching standpoint, you love to see that."
Conner, considered by analysts a solid defender against the run, started 27 games for Clemson at weakside backer, finishing with 263 career tackles, with 14 tackles for losses, three sacks, six passes defensed, two forced fumbles and an interception. He also led the Tigers in tackles as a junior and senior.
He had 103 tackles as a senior, seven tackles for losses and two sacks, and played in the East-West Shrine game following the season.
And while he said there were those who – as was the case when he entered college – doubted his chances to play professionally, such talk isn't something that hinders him.
"It's definitely a motivation," he said. "A lot of people counted me out and said I wouldn't even play at Clemson. I just try to go out and prove a lot of people wrong. I've been doubted my whole life.
"I just like to stay positive. I use negative things as a motivation. I'm not going to let anybody determine what I'm going to be or what kind of person I'm going to be. It's definitely an honor and privilege to be drafted at any position. There were a lot of great players out there, so I take it as a blessing.
"It's always been a dream of mine, since I was a child. I just knew if I worked hard good things would follow."
And if it were an honor to be selected by any NFL team, he said it was particularly true of being selected by a team with a reputation for more than just making eight consecutive post-season appearances.
"They're a great franchise, first class," he said. "They're definitely a franchise you want to play for. They have a lot of high-character guys, and I feel like I can be a part of that as well."
Conner also said he knows there is life beyond football, and while he wants to pursue the NFL as seriously and for as long as possible, he said he has plans to work as a teacher or guidance counselor after he is finished playing.
"There are a lot of kids out there who are underprivileged," he said. "I didn't always have everything that I needed or that I wanted. So, I want to be able to enable kids to do the things they want to do since I've been through it. I've got a lot I can tell them. I can be very positive and be a positive influence. I can be somebody who's credible.
"They know that I've done it myself. I feel like my purpose in life is to help other people out. That's definitely something I'm looking forward to doing."