Conner making believers out of everyone on road to UF

David Conner has been turning heads on the football field almost from the moment he first tried the sport when he was 6 years old.

“When he was little, I would say 6 or 7, he had got coined the nickname “Wild Man” by the coaches because he just was out there, he was just ‘Boom,’ hitting everybody,” his mother, Gillian Conner, said.

“When he was little, one of the parents came up to me and said, ‘Oh, he’s going D1.’ I promise you he was like 7, maybe 8. So, one of the parents told me he’s going D1. I said, ‘Oh, OK.’ I didn’t know much about that aspect of football at all, but I always remember someone saying that to me.”

There’s no word as to whether Billy Napier has contacted that parent about being his director of youth football talent evaluation.

That prediction, of course, proved to be dead on. Conner, an offensive lineman, signed with the Gators in December and will enroll in May. He’ll get to go through the entire summer strength and conditioning program prior to the start of his first fall camp.

For a while, it didn’t look like Division 1 football was going to happen for him. He didn’t receive his first scholarship offers until the spring of his junior year at Martin Luther King High School in Lithonia, Georgia, and those were from UT Martin and Kansas. While those are Division 1 programs, they’re not exactly glamorous programs.

He entered the summer prior to his senior year with additional offers from Jackson State, Florida A&M, Florida Atlantic and Syracuse on the table.

Then, he transferred to Deerfield Beach High School in South Florida, a decision that completely changed the course of his recruitment. Then-head coach Jevon Glenn decided to switch him over from defense to offense and took him on a college tour. He camped at Florida State, Miami and Florida and visited UCF, Florida Atlantic, Florida International, Florida A&M and Maryland.

Toward the end of the tour, he picked up his first two Power Five offers from Arizona and Maryland. Arizona State and Virginia also showed interest in him.

However, once he attended the Gators’ Friday Night Lights camp in late July, his recruitment was basically over. All he needed was an offer, and he was going to commit.

“After the workout that I had with Coach [John] Hevesy and Coach [Dan] Mullen, I just knew it was home,” Conner said. “I had been through workouts at other schools, and they had just put me through workouts, and that was it. But, when I went to Florida, it wasn’t just a workout; they taught me stuff. They instilled more knowledge in me than I came with, and I left with a lot of knowledge that I didn’t know. So, that’s really what made it home because I could see how the coaches were going to be able to help me build as a player.”

The offer he was waiting on finally arrived in early August. He committed 10 days later and shut down his recruitment, meaning he didn’t visit any other schools or talk with any other coaches. He was going to be a Gator. Period. End of discussion.

Then, of course, a wrench got thrown into his plan when Hevesy was fired in early November and Mullen followed him out the door a couple of weeks later. While Conner was certain that he still wanted to be a Gator, he naturally started to question whether the new coaching staff would feel the same way. Every coaching staff looks for different things in players, and it wasn’t like Conner was some hotshot five-star prospect that was guaranteed a spot in the class.

Seven players decommitted from UF’s 2022 class in the days following Napier’s hiring, and several of them were reportedly never even contacted by the new staff. Because Conner had shut down his recruitment, he didn’t have any backup options lined up in case he became another casualty.

“Those were the only coaches I was talking to at the moment,” he said. “Like, I didn’t talk to no other coaches, so, once they left, I was like, ‘What do I do now? Who do I go to?’ I never really had no thoughts in decommitting from Florida. It was always, ‘As long as Florida’s locked into me, I’m locked into Florida.’

“I always said I wasn’t committed to a coach. I was committed to the University of Florida, and that’s where I want to play ball for the next 3-4 years.”

As it turned out, he didn’t need a Plan B. Napier put his mind at ease shortly after accepting the Florida job.

“He didn’t even wait until he got done with Louisiana,” he said. “Like, the third day he got hired, he was hitting up my phone, introducing himself and just getting to know me. The official visit I took on Dec. 10, that really set in stone that I’d be playing for the University of Florida because it was just a great relationship with all the new coaches, and everybody was looking to meet you. So, it was a real great environment.”

Gillian Conner said that the things David heard about Napier and some of his initial interactions with him removed any doubt from his mind.

“I think it was the staff that he had already pulled around him at that point once we went down for the visit, the staff he pulled around him, how highly they spoke of him and just his demeanor in general,” she said. “He’s very calm – I would say a quiet thunder – he’s very calm, but he seems like he’s about business. He doesn’t take mess, and I think for David, it just sealed the deal.”

While David remained upbeat and encouraged throughout the early stages of the coaching transition, his mom admits that those were some difficult days for her.

“I was probably more worried than he let on to me that he was,” she said. “He was still always confident. ‘I’m going to Florida. I’m going to Florida.’ But, of course, naturally, you’re going to wonder if this new set of coaches is going to still want me. So, the week of the official visit, I think I probably stressed him out a lot. I called him at the beginning of the week. ‘Hey, I haven’t heard anything. What do you think?’ ‘Mama, I’m good. I’m good.’

“He was saying that to me, but I think he was psyching himself up too. And then, finally, he got a text that just said, from one of the coaches, ‘Hey, lock me in.’ So, I think that’s what it was that said that I might be good.”

Don’t get it twisted, though: Conner isn’t just satisfied with making it onto Florida’s roster. He has set a lofty goal for himself, and signing with UF is just a very small step in the right direction.

“I want to go to the Hall of Fame,” he said.

That might seem laughable if you just look at the recruiting rankings. The 247Sports Composite has him as the No. 1,166 overall player and the 110th-best offensive tackle. Of the Gators’ nine high school signees so far, Conner is the third-lowest ranked among them, and one of the two ranked lower than him is a kicker.

However, Conner believes that the rankings don’t tell the full story. He played primarily on the defensive line in his three years at Martin Luther King High School.

Obviously, players who have put together impressive film of them playing on the offensive line and have wowed scouts for several years at camps are going to get higher rankings than a player with no experience playing the position for a team that finished with a losing record in two of his three years.

Then, after Conner’s recruitment started to heat up a little bit following his strong camp performances, he was ranked for the first time despite having never played the position in a game.

In his opinion, those two factors make his low ranking irrelevant. He doesn’t even use it as motivation or a chip on his shoulder like seemingly every other overlooked recruit claims to do.

Conner is confident in his ability to succeed as the Gators’ left tackle of the future. Deerfield Beach is in Broward County, one of the biggest recruiting hotbeds in the country. He also attended a couple of camps filled with elite prospects. Conner doesn’t just think that he held his own against the supposed best defensive linemen in the country; he believes that he dominated them.

“I done stepped in front of top-100 defensive linemen this year, and they got the business,” he said. “So, the rankings don’t really matter to me.

“This summer, when my recruitment really started to heat up, after a few camps, I was just like, ‘Yeah, I can dominate this for a long time after high school.’”

Conner said that his biggest strengths are his pass-protection and zone blocking to the right, skills that certainly should prove very useful at left tackle. However, he admits that his run blocking in the other direction needs some improvement.

“When I go to the right, I’m going at a defensive tackle,” he said. “Most defensive tackles are not that fast, not faster than me. Or, [I go] straight into a linebacker, and I’ve got a straight shot. When I go to the left, since I’m going against a defensive end, they make some great move, and I be trying to react to them instead of attacking them.”

His chances at being a major contributor as a true freshman don’t seem great. As things stand now, the Gators will return 11 of their 14 scholarship linemen from the 2021 squad. And Conner is very much a developmental player because of how new he is to the position.

So, Conner is keeping his short-term goal simple.

“I want to see the field, and I just want to get a feel for the football team, and I just want to be ready for my next year,” he said. “I just want to be able to build and progress so I’m ready for the next year.”

If he does see the field, he’ll have his biggest supporter in the stands screaming her lungs out for him.

“I can’t even imagine how loud I can get now,” Gillian Conner said. “I can’t even imagine. I’m so proud. This is what he’s been working for since he was little.”

And what one parent predicted for him when he was little.

Ethan Hughes
Ethan was born in Gainesville and has lived in the Starke, Florida, area his entire life. He played basketball for five years and knew he wanted to be a sportswriter when he was in middle school. He’s attended countless Gators athletic events since his early childhood, with baseball being his favorite sport to attend. He’s a proud 2019 graduate of the University of Florida and a 2017 graduate of Santa Fe College. He interned with the University Athletic Association’s communications department for 1 ½ years as a student and also wrote for for two years before joining Gator Country in 2021. He is a long-suffering fan of the Jacksonville Jaguars. You can follow him on Twitter @ethanhughes97.