August 30, 2016

OXFORD, Miss. (AP) Of the four main players from Mississippi's talented 2013 recruiting class, three of them are now millionaires.

Then there's safety Tony Conner.

He'd likely be in the NFL right now - along with defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche, receiver Laquon Treadwell and offensive lineman Laremy Tunsil - if it hadn't been for a major knee injury against Alabama last season that caused him to miss more than half of his junior year.

Now he's back in Oxford while his former teammates are getting ready to play on Sundays. He insists he's OK with that.

''On draft night I watched and it was kind of crazy at first,'' Conner said. ''But I still salute those guys. God has a reason for everything.''

Conner's recovery from the torn meniscus in his right knee has been tougher than initially expected. The injury happened in the team's win over the Crimson Tide in September, but the hope was he would have surgery and return in about 4-6 weeks.

Conner came back for two games in November - against Arkansas and LSU - but it was clear he wasn't the same. He was shut down for the rest of the season and had another surgery.

Conner said he feels about ''90 percent'' and that's he's progressing each day and will be ready when the 11th-ranked Rebels face No. 4 Florida State on Monday in Orlando, Florida.

Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said Conner has handled the career setback as well as possible. The safety grew up about 25 miles from the Ole Miss campus in Batesville, so he's had plenty of family and friends close by to provide support.

''He's got a great mom who keeps him grounded and he's just a guy who loves to play the game,'' Freeze said. ''I think, really, that Tony would stay at Ole Miss for 10 years if he could because he's just a country boy who loves to be at home. But he'll get his opportunity in the NFL.''

If the 6-foot-0, 225-pound senior is close to his former self this year, the Rebels will receive a huge boost for their defense. The hard-hitter - who often plays in the hybrid safety/linebacker role that the Rebels use in their 4-2-5 defense - had 69 tackles as a sophomore in 2014 and led all SEC defensive backs with nine tackles for a loss.

But players and coaches said the leadership he provides is at least just as important.

''Tony is a grown man back there and that's what I love about him,'' Ole Miss defensive lineman Breeland Speaks said. ''He's going to play his heart out every time. That's what you get with Tony. Any time you have a player like that with talent - like first-round NFL talent - you can't go wrong.''

Freeze said the Rebels' mid-season swoon last year - which included losses to Florida to Memphis - was in part because the defense was a little lost without Conner.

''It took us three games last year to figure out how to play without him,'' Freeze said.

Freeze said he'd like to limit Conner's snaps early in the season, but he might not have that luxury. The Rebels go into the game with several young players at safety following the departure of seniors Mike Hilton and Trae Elston.

''He is a leader, he understands the game, he's physical,'' Freeze said. ''He's just a football player so I think him at 90 percent makes us a lot better.''

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Follow David Brandt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/davidbrandtAP

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