One yard changed everything.
During North Panola’s spring game in 2014, four-star athlete Justin Connor was within reach of the endzone when he made a costly split second decision.
“All I wanted was to run one extra yard when I could have easily just stepped out of bounds,” Connor said. “(The defense) stopped me at the 3-yard line and the dude’s helmet just chipped into my leg.”
A broken fibula set Connor back before a single snap his junior year and taught him an important lesson.
“I think it made me wiser,” he said. “My injuries got me depressed but they taught me to keep my head up and keep fighting.”
The North Panola standout has battled multiple injuries since his sophomore year, but broken ribs, a broken leg and heat illness hasn’t kept the athletic running back from becoming one of the top high school football players in Mississippi.
“I just want to stay healthy and play a full season,” he said. “I want to prove more yards than I did last season. More touchdowns. I think we can do that and I’m going to step up as a leader to get my team to the state championship.”
Stat breakdown: 131 carries for 936 yards and 7 touchdowns as a junior.
Rankings: Four-star prospect by 247Sports, Rivals and Scout.
What makes him a Dandy: The lack of depth at running back in Mississippi this year only works in Connor’s favor. The do-it-all athlete logged 131 carries for 936 yards and seven touchdowns during a junior season littered with injuries. Connor accelerates quickly out of the backfield and carves through defenses with his lateral quickness. He doesn’t have elite break-away speed yet but makes up for it with instincts that help him find gaps to out run his coverage. Even if he breaks 1,000 yards rushing this season, his coaches at North Panola see his biggest impact coming on defense. At 5-foot-10, 190 pounds, Connor projects as a cornerback at the next level. He played some free safety for the Cougars last year but will see more time in the defensive backfield as a corner. His agility and loose hips let him change direction quickly and his field vision makes him react to where the ball is being thrown so he can jam a receiver. With North Panola’s core group of players from last year gone, 2015 will be Connor’s chance to shoulder more responsibility and continue to prove why he’s one of the most explosive athletes in the state.
Where he’s going: Connor, who committed to Ole Miss in Aug. 2013, is a firm pledge for the Rebels. Mississippi State and Louisville offered the four-star athlete but there’s not a whole ton that’s going to change his mind. When he was plagued with injuries in each of the last two seasons, Connor felt support from Rebels running back coach Derrick Nix who “was there through it all” and reinforced that his offer was never in jeopardy.
Best time to catch him this fall: Aug. 21 vs. Rosa Fort. The Cougars haven’t beaten the Lions a lot in recent years and grabbed their first win since 2009 in this heated rivalry game last season. Connor says he knows Rosa Fort will be eager to avenge 2014’s loss which gives him extra motivation to go head-to-head with four-star athlete Ronald Ladd and three-star defensive lineman Hal Northern.
What he said: “This is a real big confidence boost,” Connor said. “I didn’t think I as going to get (Dandy Dozen) because I was hurt a lot the last two years. I’m at a loss for words. Im just blessed to be considered one of the best in the state.”
Worth noting: Connor, the fifth Dandy Dozen selection from North Panola, is cousins with former South Panola defensive lineman Temario Strong and safety Tony Conner, both of whom were selected to the Dandy Dozen before signing with Ole Miss.
Contact Courtney Cronin at (601) 961-7091 or email@example.com. Follow @CourtneyRCronin on Twitter.