ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – **Some of the wide receivers available in the 2013 NFL Draft had the benefit of playing with quarterbacks who will eventually play on Sundays.
But only one had the opportunity to catch passes from a four-time NFL MVP.
That would be Duke receiver Conner Vernon.
When quarterback Demaryius Thomas began his on-field rehabilitation, he reunited with his college offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe at Duke University, where Cutcliffe is now the head coach.
When Vernon got the phone call from his coach that Manning needed receivers to throw to, he dropped what he was doing and headed to the football facility.
"It was very secretive at first because obviously Duke was a place for Peyton to get away from media and basically just start his rehab," Vernon said. "The first time he came was during the lockout, so he couldn't rehab (in Indianapolis). He came to Duke to rehab, Coach (Cutcliffe) was with him at Tennessee, so he came there and started working out. One day, Coach Cutcliffe called me and said, 'Hey, Peyton is in town. He needs somebody to catch for him.'"
While Vernon helped Manning take the next step in his career, the work also benefitted the receiver as he prepared for his senior season at Duke.
"We did NFL stuff," Vernon said. "We ran NFL-depth routes to get him ready. That was a
big thing that people were doubting – his arm – at that point in time. Catching that ball, there wasn't a doubt at all, being a receiver. It was quite the experience. We did it for a few days, but it was a few good days of work. Long days and just to see him work was truly a great experience."
Manning led Vernon and some other Duke pass-catchers through a set of specific routes during the sessions. That helped the receiver continue to develop as a route-runner and understand the demands of the NFL.
When wide receiver Brandon Stokley and other former Manning teammates came in to join the workouts, that gave Vernon a few more NFL brains to pick over.
"Stokley was another class act, another very professional guy," Vernon said. He told me, 'Just play your game.' He kind of gave me some pointers here and there and to do stuff at the top of your route to try to trick the DBs and stuff like that. It was knowledge that I took in and practiced a lot and took that into my senior year as well as just the way they worked. Everything they did was 100 percent."
As Vernon watched Manning return to form, he knew that the signal caller would be able to regain his MVP-caliber play of years past.
"I have a running joke that I like to think I was the reason he did so well this year," Vernon said. "That was an awesome experience. It was great just to see him work, see his work ethic and his attitude about trying to come back. He was trying to prove everyone wrong and show that he still has it. Just being able to see him work – that was kind of the attitude that I took into my senior season."
The work paid off as Vernon set career highs with 85 receptions for 1,074 yards and eight touchdowns during his final year for the Blue Devils.
He left Duke as the ACC's all-time record holder in both receptions and receiving yards and helped his team earn the school's first bowl berth since 1994.
"Just to have my name in the record book that sits on the top, as well as Duke's name, is very humbling," Vernon said. "Records are always meant to be broken, so someday, somebody will break my records. But for the most part, I'm just going to sit back and enjoy it and know for at least one year I was the all-time leading receiver in ACC history."
The experience that Vernon gained from working with Manning is something that he now hopes to take with him as he prepares for the 2013 NFL Draft.
"It was unbelievable," Vernon said. "It was Peyton Manning. That name speaks for itself. Who he is speaks for itself. Not only on the field, but off the field – just being around him and seeing how he operated every day. He was very professional. Just being able to see him work and to have the opportunity to catch passes from him was great. Hopefully one day I can do it again. For that month he was there, that experience was something I'll definitely remember."