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Connor the center of attention

Posted Aug 24, 2009

Dan Connor, lining up during training camp. (PHOTO: ANDREW MASON / PANTHERS.COM)


CHARLOTTE -- Replacing Jon Beason at middle linebacker during his convalescence from a knee sprain is about more than just strapping on the helmet, pursuing ballcarriers and bringing them down. It's about commanding the defense -- through intelligence, words and deed.

Dan Connor knows all this. His awareness of everything a middle -- or "mike" -- linebacker must be in Carolina's defense is a good starting point for what ammounts to an immersion learning program while Beason recovers.

"Middle 'backer in this system does a lot of talking. You take the call out of the huddle and make the checks on the line -- for the D-line and the secondary. It's a lot of thinking and a lot of talking on the ball. So it's a big role, an important role, and it's something where you've got to study a lot and be confident when you're out there."

It's nothing he hasn't done before.

"It's a similar role that I had at Penn State, being the 'mike' and then doing all the same things, making all the checks and adjustments. So it's going back to college a little bit.'"

In many ways, Connor's last 12 months have been similar to his years at Penn State. But the common threads between life as a Nittany Lion and as a Panther lie in the time he's spent studying; it's just that he's exchanged textbooks for full-time examination of a playbook.

His education accelerated this summer when he saw some time at strongside linebacker, while also playing in the middle during the first week of camp after Beason aggravated a strained hamstring.

"It's been hectic. There's a lot of learning, trying to learn the 'mike' and 'sam' (strong side) at the same time," Connor said. "But I've been studying hard. Jon going down puts a lot of pressure on me, but that's why I'm out here at work every day, to get an opportunity. I just want to make the best of it."

The timing would seem right for Connor to begin proving himself. The torn anterior cruciate ligament that ended his rookie season after just three games is more than 11 months in the past. By organized team activities in June, he was moving without a brace, and even though he still has to stretch out for 45 minutes before each practice or game, he shows no lingering effects from the injury.

If anything, he's in better shape now than when he arrived last year.

"I probably dropped 5 to 10 pounds just to fit the scheme we do a little better," Connor said. "I can move a little better and play longer. You feel better later."

What he and the Panthers hope is that both feel better about their depth at linebacker after Connor's fill-in stint is done.

"There's pressure to come in there and try to fill a huge void," Connor said. "Jon's not only a great player, but a great leader, so it's big shoes to fill. But I'm looking forward to it.

"It's a chance to prove myself to this city and the NFL. It's a good opportunity for me."