Tanner Conner arrived in Pocatello as an afterthought. He was a lightly-recruited raw receiver, buried in the depth-chart pit behind guys like Michael Dean, Mitch Gueller and Hagen Graves.
Graves was a junior when Conner first arrived at Idaho State in 2016. This season he’s the Bengals’ receivers coach, looking over an exceptionally-deep corps led by Conner.
Oh, how things have changed.
For a guy who needed four years in Pocatello to notch a 100-yard season, Conner has blossomed into one of the Bengals’ most important pieces. In the shortened spring season, he may have even been their MVP, catching 34 passes for 685 yards, three touchdowns and earning first-team all-conference honors.
“If he keeps playing how he was in the spring, he’s going to be just fine,” Graves said. “But he wants to be the greatest, so he’s pushing himself every day.”
That part’s easy for Conner. All he’s ever done is push himself, seeking heights that don’t exactly seem feasible in the moment. Conner’s football career is basically just a journey of self-belief, which is easy to forget now as he embarks on his final collegiate season with more hype under his feet than he’s ever had.
The regional awards from the spring season turned to national acclaim this summer, when The Athletic’s Bruce Feldman put Conner at No. 12 on his annual Freaks List. On a ballot of basically the best pound-for-pound athletes in the country, Conner was near the top.
Not bad for a guy who could have convinced someone to buy snake oil easier than convincing them he could play college football.
Signing day 2016 passed with Conner still uncertain of his destination, which baffled a number of people around him. Conner had offers -- good ones, too.
Both Washington and Washington State handed him scholarship offers. Only, the Huskies and Cougars just wanted Conner, who won the 300-meter hurdles Washington State Championship, to run track for them. And when he tried to even inquire about the possibility of also playing football, the pair of Pac-12 schools “didn’t give me the time of day,” he said.
“I was like, ‘Maybe this isn’t the right path for me,’” Conner added.
The only one open to the idea, it seemed, was Idaho State track coach Hillary Merkley. She has never been a huge proponent of athlete’s specializing at a single sport early in their lives. She was also at a program that couldn’t outduel Pac-12 schools with facilities or level of competition. So as numerous schools scoffed at Conner’s idea of doing two sports, Merkley was open to it.
“This was not a football kid wanting to do track,” Merkley said. “This was a kid who was really good at track but maybe didn’t get a lot of exposure with football because of his circumstances.”
But, ultimately, it wasn’t her call. It was up to the football coaches if they wanted to dole out a scholarship to Conner at a time when not a single other program wanted to pull the trigger.
The revisionist history of Conner’s recruitment is easy now to pin on college coaches’ oversight. But there was reason for collegiate decision makers to be skeptical of Conner’s ability.
He played on a Kentridge High team that won two combined games in Conner’s junior and senior seasons. In that span, too, Conner caught just 26 passes for just over 500 yards and only four touchdowns. The culprit? Kentridge operated a run-heavy Wing-T offense.
“He was on offense, defense and special teams for us and he rarely came off the field,” said Conner’s coach at Kentridge, Marty Osborn. “If we would’ve emphasized throwing more, I think he would have been very productive and probably had all-state potential.
“Definitely, the system held him back. It wasn’t that he could’ve done more to accomplish anything.”
That’s what Conner hoped Idaho State saw.
On Conner’s official visit to Pocatello, Merkley called the ISU football coaches and asked if she could bring Conner up for a quick meeting. Conner introduced himself and left the link to his highlights.
Now the ISU defensive coordinator, Roger Cooper was in the room of coaches who watched Conner’s film that day. The Kentridge team, Cooper remembered, was not good, but the tall receiver kept making plays.
At lunch a few hours later, Merkley answered a phone call. Before she could even give Conner the news, he saw the smile on her face and knew: He had a football scholarship.
“I was overwhelmed with joy,” Conner said. “It was good to see the perseverance lay out everything for me and let me play here.”
In the years since, it has been Idaho State overwhelmed with joy. He’s poised for a stellar senior season on the gridiron. And, with ISU’s track team, Conner won the 110-meter hurdles at the Big Sky Outdoor Championships as a sophomore and later set an indoor conference record in the 60-meter hurdles.
Perhaps if things had gone differently, Conner could have taken a scholarship in Seattle or Pullman and become an exceptional Pac-12 runner. Heck, there’s some who may rather embark on that path over a shot to play Big Sky football. But Conner’s athletic love had always been football. His father, Andy, played at Oregon and made a few NFL preseason rosters and Conner hoped to carve out a similar path.
Andy had always preached patience with Conner. Often, it was about his body size. Andy had the frame of a large linebacker and, well, Conner didn’t. Andy knew his son would fill out, and he seemed to have hope a football opportunity would arise.
“I talked with my dad about how signing day came and went and I didn’t get any offers or anything or sign anywhere,” Conner said. “He was like, “I still think you can play. If you really want to, you can do it.’ Track would have been good but I don’t think it was where my heart was at.
“I knew football was where my true passion was.”