Players of the Pine Belt - Hattiesburg senior Jarod Conner

Players of the Pine Belt - Hattiesburg senior Jarod Conner

HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - For the first third of the 2017 football season, Jarod Conner was a running back still learning how to play quarterback.

Once the junior settled in and grew more and more comfortable and consistent in the passing game, the coaches opened up the playbook and Conner became a clutch-play dynamo at the heart of Hattiesburg High School's high-octane offense.

"Early on, we expected him to struggle somewhat as we worked with him in the pass game," HHS coach Tony Vance said. "Initially, we tried not to give him too much offensively, and then as the season progressed, so did he.

"Probably halfway through the season, we knew exactly what we had at quarterback and it was what we were hoping to have. He got better as the season went, passing the football. That really helped our offense and helped our run game."

Indeed.

The Tigers ripped off 14 consecutive wins, toppling Class 6A neighbors Petal and Oak Grove high schools and topping archrival Laurel High School twice along the way before falling in the Class 5A state championship game to perennial powerhouse West Point High School.

Conner's numbers were absurd. Over 15 games, he accounted for 53 touchdowns, including 28 rushing, and 25 passing, while amassing more than 4,000 yards total offense in one of the most memorable seasons in the school's history.

Now, the 5-foot-11, 210-pound Conner, who was selected as the Tigers' "Player of the Pine Belt," returns for his senior season with one burning question looming: What do you do for an encore?

"We want to finish it this year," said Conner, who has added about 15-pounds of muscle. "Losing (in the title game) has made us push even harder.

"I think this team is going to be even better than last year. This team, we're working even harder. We're pushing ourselves to go and try and finish our deal from last year."

That may take some doing. Consider: Hattiesburg scored less than 41 points only three times in 2017, with Laurel turning the trick twice and then West Point. In seven games, the Tigers scored 50 points or more.

HHS averaged 452 yards total offense a game and a big-play defense came up with 32 sacks and 19 interceptions.

Much will be left in Conner's hands _ and feet _ this fall, and Vance said he has complete faith in the senior leader.

"We expect him to have another stellar performance," Vance said. "We expect him to be great for us. I tell people all the time that I don't ever compare one year to the next year, but we expect him to be just as productive this year though we know people are going to be paying closer attention to him coming off a year with 53 touchdowns.

"But he's probably the most unselfish guy I've ever had. He's a hard worker. He's probably put on 15, 20 pounds. He's worked his butt off in the weight room. He's a kid who's going to be here every day, a kid you can hang your hat on. He's going to do the things that you want him to do."

Conner said he learned a lot last year, especially how much just working through repetitions as part of a regular routine meant to his growth.

"It was just a matter of coming out and working at it every day, listening to coach, him just staying after it and pushing me," Conner said. "We went through it every day and he got me to where I needed to be, Coach Vance.

"The toughest adjustment was probably throwing the ball. After a while, I got it right. I got smooth with it. It was about the mechanics."

Vance said Conner has started to speak up more, though he remains more a leader by example.

This spring, Conner led the Tigers' offseason workouts in the weight room.

"I think that tells you what kind of confidence we have in him as a leader," Vance said. "He was the guy we were able to turn the weight room over to and he ran our weight room for us. He did a great job and our other guys bought into it. I just can't say enough good things about him."

Conner said he was getting looks from a number of schools, including the University of Southern Mississippi, University of Mississippi, University of Memphis, Tulane University and Arkansas State University.

He said he wants to play at the next level, though he'd likely return to running back in college.

But first things first.

Despite the loss of key weapons like running back Fabian Franklin and receivers D'Andre Humbles and Raheem Willis, a new season beckons, and Conner said the Tigers are ready to write another chapter full of Friday night highlights.

"We know we've got to go out there and work harder," Conner said. "We just can't get complacent. We've just got to keep working hard and take one game at a time."

"Whatever happens, happens, because I know our offensive linemen are going to click every night, so the run (game's) going to take care of itself and our receivers are going to get the job done. I'll just go with the flow."

And that's exactly what Vance expects from Conner, operating within the flow of the game.

"We graduated some good players, and obviously, you're going to be much better with better players," Vance said. "I'm a much better coach when I've got really good players.

"But to have your starting quarterback back, and head coach will tell you, you feel like you've got a chance."