South Panola (Batesville, Miss.) has established itself as one of nation’s elite football programs over the past decade. Last year, the Tigers won their seventh state title since 2003 and state-record ninth overall with their 28-7 win over Meridian (Meridian, Miss.) to finish the year No. 2 in POWERADE FAB 50 ESPNHS Team Rankings.
Tigers coach Lance Pogue has seen plenty of talent come through the program in his five years at the helm, but he’s only had one freshman who was talented enough to crack his starting lineup. That player was Antonio Conner, who started at free safety during South Panola’s run to the Class 6A state title in 2009.
“He had some growing pains, but once he started going, you couldn’t tell he was a freshman out there,” says Pogue.
Conner was even better last season, as he snagged All-State honors after tallying 89 tackles, four interceptions, 410 rushing yards and six touchdowns. He also picked off two passes in the state title game.
This year, the 6-foot-1, 195-pound ESPNU 150 Watch List member has been asked to do even more for the Tigers, who suffered through an uncharacteristic slow start and dropped out of the POWERADE FAB 50 in Week 3 as a young roster got acclimated to varsity play.
But South Panola is on a bit of a roll right now having won three straight and four of its last five. This past weekend, the Tigers rolled past Southaven (Southaven, Miss.), 44-21, as Conner rushed for 332 yards and five touchdowns on 34 carries.
Conner has lined up at quarterback, running back and safety this season, but it’s safety where he prefers to play in college. The Troy Polamalu fan is being recruited by the likes of Ole Miss, Alabama, Mississippi State, Oregon and Tennessee.
“What sets him apart is he has no fear,” says Pogue. “He’s a guy who’s always looking for contact.”
So before you go over the middle against the Tigers, we suggest you Get Familiar with their hard-hitting safety.
ESPNHS: How difficult was it for you to start as a freshman?
Conner: I was just trying not to get beat. I was learning how to cover better. I was nervous, but I had to keep my composure. I kept on practicing and I got used to it.
ESPNHS: What does it mean to play for South Panola?
Conner: It means a whole lot to be a Tiger. It takes a lot of work. You can’t just put the jersey on and say you’re a Tiger.
ESPNHS: You guys have had a tough start to the season, something you guys aren’t accustomed to. How has that helped your team grow?
Conner: We started out kind of slow, but we’re picking it up real fast. We’ve stayed together as a team and fought hard, but we have to keep it up. We're going to reach the top.
ESPNHS: How have you dealt with all the recruiting attention?
Conner: The seniors tell me to keep my head up and my grades up. I’m excited for all the attention, but I’m just in my junior year. I’m looking to lead my team to a state title. I really don’t think about. When I’m a senior, then I’ll think about it.
ESPNHS: How would you describe your style of play?
Conner: I want to play safety when I get to college. I love the contact and I love to hit. I’m very aggressive. Getting big hits really pumps the crowd up.
School: South Panola (Batesville, Miss.)
POSITION: Quarterback/Running Back/Safety
TV Show: “Sanford and Son”
Movie: “Love & Basketball”
Actor: Kevin Hart
Musical Artist: Yo Gotti
Athlete: Troy Polamalu
School Subject: Geometry
Clothing Line: Nike
NEXT UP: South Panola hosts Grenada (Grenada, Miss.) on Friday night.
Jon Mahoney covers football for ESPNHS magazine and ESPNHIGHSCHOOL.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org to let him know which high school football player he should Get Familiar with.