Conner Vernon spent many Saturdays playing catch in front of the Orange Bowl, dreaming about one day becoming the next great Hurricanes receiver. Reggie Wayne, Andre Johnson, Roscoe Parrish, Vernon not only has all of their jerseys, but all of their famous catches entrenched in his memory.
"You know those kids who would play catch in the parking lot and hit cars with the ball by accident -- that was me," Vernon said. "I went to a lot of games from about age seven to 13, a lot of good ones. My favorite was the comeback against Florida. I remember when Devin Hester took the kickoff back for a touchdown. That's probably my greatest memory. The OB was rocking that night."
Vernon (6-2, 192) hasn't outgrown his love for the Canes. He still roots for them plenty. But he won't be throwing up any U's this week when he and the rest of Duke's Miami Connection -- quarterback Thaddeus Lewis (226-364, 2,640 yards, 16 TDs, 6 INTs) and receiver Donovan Varner (46 catches, 708 yards, 5 TDs) -- come to Land Shark Stadium Saturday.
The Blue Devils (5-5, 3-3 ACC) need to win their final two games -- at UM (7-3, 4-3 ACC) and at home against Wake Forest -- to become bowl eligible. And Vernon, who has become one of the top freshman wide receivers in the country (44 catches, 601 yards, 3 TDs), is hoping Lewis and the rest of Duke's seniors finally get a taste of the bowl season.
"We're real hungry," Vernon said. "You have these seniors who have never been to a bowl game and they know it comes down to these last two games for us to make it happen. We're going put it all one the line."
Vernon never imagined he'd be involved in a game like this because he never really imagined himself playing college football. Growing up as the son of Key Biscayne mayor Rober Vernon, Conner said he didn't get involved in organized ball until he was in eighth grade at Gulliver Prep in Miami, the same school that produced former Canes great and the late Sean Taylor.
"I always loved the game, but even when I got to high school I saw how hard it was and I thought there is no way I'd be good at this," Vernon said. "It wasn't until my junior year that I even really started thinking I might be able to play at the next level. But really, I always just played for the love of the game."
His love turned into a passion. By the time he was finished his senior year, he put up receiving numbers second only to Aldarius Johnson in Miami-Dade County history. He caught 60 passes for 1,163 yards and 11 touchdowns his senior year and helped Gulliver reach the Class 2A state title game while being named to the All-Dade Class 3A-1A First Team.
Despite his success even as a junior and the spring before his senior year when he helped lead Gulliver to a third place finish in California at the Adidas 7-on-7 national tournament (Pahokee won), Vernon wasn't very highly regarded. He was ranked as a three-star recruit by both Rivals and Scout.com and tabbed as the 148th best receiver in the Class of 2009 by ESPN.com.
It wasn't just the Canes (who signed seven receivers in 2008 and didn't bring in any last year) who missed the boat on Vernon. So did most of the country. Wake Forest, Ole Miss, Vanderbilt and Troy were the only other schools to extend him a scholarship offer.
"[UM defensive assistant] coach [Michael] Barrow was at our spring game and I had a pretty good spring game," Vernon said. "He told me he thought I was a pretty good player. But UM never really recruited me. I guess I wasn't what they were looking for. But at the same time, I can't blame them. I know they didn't recruit any other receivers. They were pretty much loaded up."
Landing at Duke, a school he visited three times (twice unofficially) throughout the recruiting process, has turned out to be a perfect fit for Vernon. After arriving in Durham in May, Vernon said he went right to work with Lewis, playing catch and participating in 7-on-7 drills. The chemistry they built showed up right away in the opener against Richmond when Vernon entered in the second quarter and caught passes on his first two plays from scrimmage.
"This is definitely a dream that has become a reality," Vernon said. "I'm surprised from the standpoint that I was able to adapt to the game so quickly. From an ability standpoint, I knew I had it in me. But the jump from high school to college, people don't realize how big it is. But playing with Thad, catching passes with Donovan, we just have this chemistry that works. We're just having a lot of fun."
Duke has the No. 1 passing offense in the ACC. There is no doubt UM's biggest weakness on defense has been it's secondary. The Canes rank seventh in pass defense in ACC. But if you look up Wake Forest, Florida State and plenty of other moments in between, you can see why Duke might be in for a big day Saturday. And although they both might be young, Vernon and Varner have plenty of experience playing against the guys in UM's secondary because they faced many of them throughout high school. And Lewis, has come awfully close to beating the Canes three times already.
"I feel like if we come out and execute, we could have a big passing game on anybody," Vernon said. "It comes down being able to execute. They're defense has had some rough days against the pass. But they really don't have one weak person in their secondary. I know because I played against those guys. I played Brandon [Harris] in a 7-on-7 tournament. Him, Davon Johnson, Thearon Collier, we beat them in that tournament.
"I played Brandon McGee too on South Florida Express team and against Jordan Futch. I know of a bunch of those guys. It's matter of us executing."