“I think the sky is the limit for him,” Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio said of Gareon Conley. “I think he’s a really fine football player. He’s got exceptional moving skills. Gareon has been, really, a sponge. Learning things very quickly. He’s a good learner and a competitive guy. I’m really happy we got him. I think he’s going to prove to be a really good player. We’ll let him earn his way as we go, but God blessed him with a lot of ability. We feel like he’ll be a really special player for us.”
That was exactly a year ago today, following the first day of mandatory minicamp. The next day, Conley was lost to a shin injury. Little did anyone know at the time, but that was the beginning of a long road.
A seemingly insignificant injury that wasn’t expected to have him even miss camp would have him miss all of training camp and all but a game and a half of the season.
Just prior to the season, he returned to practice. And week two, he played extensively. Week three, he aggravate his shin injury and never returned. By midseason, it was clear he was not returning, so they placed him on injured reserve and he had surgery done on the injured shin.
“It’s been a dark world that he’s been in, this young man,” said head coach Jon Gruden Tuesday. “He’s had a terrible injury he had to rehab from, he’s had to change coaches, learn a new system and it’s been a slow and steady process.”
So, here we are. Back to the same juncture a year later with Conley entering his second season in the NFL, hoping to make a go at it this time.
“I mean, I feel like it’s still my rookie year because I didn’t play a lot, but I learned a lot mentally,” Conley said Tuesday. “I feel like it’s my second year mentally and just knowing the game and all the logistics, but physically I feel like it’s my rookie year again because I didn’t play a lot.”
Helping Conley to have a second chance at his rookie year is teammate Karl Joseph. The third-year safety had his rookie season usurped from him due to a torn ACL he suffered his senior year at West Virginia. It had him miss the entire offseason program and most of training camp.
What’s ironic is Joseph said a year ago, after minicamp, that Conley was “probably a step ahead of where I was last year because I couldn’t participate in everything.” At that time he had no idea the shin injury was going to be such a lingering issue.
Even with Joseph appearing in 12 games as a rookie, he has said he was not himself, that he was hesitant due to the injury. Sharing his experience has helped Conley to get through his own situation.
“I just know how hard it is coming in as a high draft pick, first round,” said Joseph. “We battled through some injuries and I told him to keep his head up, keep fighting through it. There is a lot of pressure from outside sources and pressure you put on yourself coming in being drafted high. So just keep battling through it, and when you’re ready you’re going to be ready.”
“We chopped it up a few times and I knew that he was a guy that I needed to take under my wing. I’m still young myself, but the knowledge I gained from my first year battling through the same thing, I could pass on.”
Both players are learning a new defensive scheme now and have something to prove. Conley has looked as good or better than he did prior to the shin injury and with his health, his confidence has returned as well.
“I feel like I’m back,” said Conley.
“It was really difficult, because I’ve never been hurt. . . But, I feel like I’ve gotten my confidence back and I feel good.”
His health and confidence will be crucial for the Raiders who are expecting him to be the number one corner they drafted him to be.