Before he became the Atlantic Coast Conference’s all-time leader in receptions and receiving yards this season, Duke’s Conner Vernon grew up tailgating at the Orange Bowl and dreaming of one day becoming a Hurricane.
On Saturday afternoon, the former All-Dade first-team receiver at Gulliver Prep who never got a scholarship offer from any in-state program will play in his last home game at Wallace Wade Stadium.
Leading Duke to its first win over UM since 1976? That would be the “cherry on top,” Vernon said, to a career that has exceeded even his own expectations.
“I would have never thought when I first committed to Duke and walked on campus that I’d be able to call myself [the ACC’s all-time leading receiver],” said Vernon, who has 262 career catches and 3,521 receiving yards. “But it’s been a lot of fun getting there.”
Vernon (6-1, 200) has never been resentful toward the Hurricanes not going after him because he was hardly recruited at all. Aside from Duke, his top offers were from Mississippi, Vanderbilt, Troy and Wake Forest.
Vernon said being a part of the rebuilding project under coach David Cutcliffe, who received an extension through the 2019 season this week, and being a part of the first team to earn a bowl trip since 1995 “has been great.”
“It’s part of the reason I came here. I saw what Coach Cut wanted to do with this program and where he wanted to take it,” said Vernon, who currently projects to be a fourth- or fifth-round draft pick in April, according to NFLDraftScout.com.
“He just made it more football-oriented. There were just a lot of guys who were here to get a degree. From a recruiting standpoint of bringing in a lot guys who love the game of football and want to play at the next level … that attitude coming to work every day is what you need.”
Vernon said he feels badly for the Hurricanes and the fact that the school self-imposed a bowl ban for a second consecutive season. In 2008, Vernon played on the South Florida Express 7-on-7 team with current Hurricanes senior cornerback Brandon McGee. The two figure to see themselves plenty Saturday.
“They’re a good football team,” said Vernon, who will graduate in December with a degree in English. “We know coming in they’re not going to have a great attitude about the situation and try to take it out on us.”
UM coach Al Golden said his team has to do a good job slowing down Vernon (64 catches, 846 yards, 5 touchdowns).
“I think he is crafty, and he has an excellent skill set and they use him really well,” Golden said. “He finds ways to get open, and he has real speed down the field, so we have to be careful with him.”
JENKINS SHINING LATE
There might not be a player on UM’s defense who is finishing the 2012 season better than freshman safety Rayshawn Jenkins.
After breaking out against Virginia two weeks ago with eight tackles in just 38 snaps, Jenkins (6-1, 203) earned his first start against South Florida last week and led UM with seven tackles and an interception.
“He’s getting better,” defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio said. “He hit a little blip where he was banged up [with a concussion] and it kind of cost him a couple weeks. We were moving towards trying to play him more early in the season. You can see the talent out there. You can see the range. You can see he’s physical. He’s got a ways to go, has to clean up technique, but I’m encouraged by him.”
McGee said he thinks Jenkins and fellow freshman safety Deon Bush are hard hitters. But he said Bush, who will return to action Saturday, hits a little harder.
“I’m sure Rayshawn will be mad at me,” McGee joked. “They complement each other. They’re both physical guys. Rayshawn is a bit bigger than Deon is. But they’re both athletic. Both can cover decently. I think they mesh well.”