On the run

Published 7:06 pm Saturday, October 19, 2013

Austin's Nate Conner

Austin’s Nate Conner

If you see Austin sophomore Nate Conner walking around town, he might not stand out to you.

Standing at 5-feet, 7-inches tall and weighing 141 pounds, you certainly wouldn’t guess that he plays varsity football.

But if you put a football in Conner’s hands and give him 5 yards of space, he’ll make it tough on just about any defense he faces. Conner has been a big part of the Packers’ resurgence this year, as he’s racked up 694 rushing yards (6.3 per carry) and seven touchdowns.

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While Conner lacks size, he more than makes up for it with a quick first step and a strong ability to cut-back against the grain when the defense over pursues him.

“He’s just so quick. I don’t know that I’ve seen a quicker guy than he is,” Austin head coach Brett Vesel said. “He can stop on a dime and I’ve never seen so many people completely whiff on a guy before. He just makes them miss. He’s Barry Sanders like.”

Conner burst onto the Packer football scene last season as a freshman, working his way into the lineup as a reserve running back. He finished that season with 385 rushing yards and four TDs on a team that finished 2-7 overall.

This year, Conner’s been helping a Packer team that finished the regular season 4-4 overall and will open the Section 1AAAAA tournament at Faribault (5-3 overall) Tuesday at 7 p.m. He said a lot has changed in one year.

“This year’s a lot more fun. The team works hard, and I like the way everyone is doing their job,” Conner said. “I didn’t really say anything last year because I wanted to be on people’s good sides. I was really quiet, but this year I talk more.”

Vesel said Conner had a chance to be a full-time varsity player last year, but he wasn’t the best blocker in the backfield. Now that he’s cleaned that up, Conner could make some big strides in the years to come.

“He can be a real force if he can add some size over the next year and be able to break out of some of those arm tackles,” Vesel said.

Despite being a bit undersized, Conner runs with a fearless approach when he’s carrying the ball. He said the worst injury he’s ever gotten is a headache, and it helps that not too many defenders can square up Conner and put a good hit on him due to his quickness. Still, he plans on bulking up in the years to come.

“I don’t really have fear. I kind of like to think of the size I’m going to be when I’m a senior,” Conner said. “I don’t want to learn how to run scared and then be bigger as a senior and not want contact.”

Connor actually began this season as a slot receiver, but when Zach Wessels and Nik Gasner joined the football team, he was moved back to running back.

Conner didn’t mind playing receiver, but he’s glad to be back in the backfield. As for the future of the program, Austin’s sophomore class has some high hopes. Conner said he and his friends are already talking about what they’d like to do as upperclassmen.

Austin running back Nate Conner finds a big hole through the line on a first-quarter carry against Albert Lea on Oct. 11. The Packers won 37-25. Herald file photo

Austin running back Nate Conner finds a big hole through the line on a first-quarter carry against Albert Lea on Oct. 11. The Packers won 37-25. Herald file photo

“We have high expectations,” Conner said. “There’re pictures in the locker room of Big Nine champs and state champs. We want to get a picture up there somehow.”