In their first five games of the season, the New York Giants rushed for an average of 56.8 yards per game, posting a 0-5 record.
In their last five games, during which the Giants have gone 4-1, that average has soared to 97.2 per game despite a merry-go-round of running backs in the backfield.
The constant for New York has been the presence of fullback John Conner, a 5'11", 245-pound four-year veteran who signed with the Giants on Sept. 25, 2013, after Henry Hynoski was lost for the season.
Nicknamed ”The Terminator” because he shares his name with the lead character in the popular movie franchise, Conner has brought a whole new dimension to the running game that has contributed to the balance that head coach Tom Coughlin desires.
“He’s given us explosiveness,” said offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride.
“He has shown an ability to go after people and move people out of the hole, so he’s been a big catalyst to the improvement of the running game.”
Unlike the fictitious movie character brought to the silver screen by Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Giants’ version of the Terminator is a very real person who quietly goes about conducting his business of helping to make his fellow running backs look good.
A three-sport star at Lakota West High School in West Chester, Ohio, Conner was a two-year starter at running back who rushed for 1,100 yards and 14 touchdowns, as per his official University of Kentucky bio.
Conner, who also played baseball and basketball, knew at a very young age that football might be his calling because it was in his blood.
His father, John, spent part of his youth playing high school and semi-pro football as an offensive lineman and a fullback before switching to a career as a heavy equipment operator.
Conner’s parents allowed their son to focus on school and sports, taking turns to drive him to various practices and games while he was growing up.
Conner’s father instilled in his young son the importance of playing tough, physical ball at an early age and taught his son about the importance of not giving up.
My first time playing football, I was about seven years old. My dad went out and bought the equipment and he was like, ‘I’m going to buy this equipment and you have to stick with it.’
After the first practice and game, I didn’t like the game, and I wanted to quit. My dad told me I had to play because he had bought the equipment, so I stuck with it and grew to love the game.
In high school, Conner was a versatile threat for the Firebirds, not only running and catching the ball, but also throwing his body around as a lead blocker and as a linebacker.
A Blocker, a Runner and a Receiver
By the time his high school career was done, Conner hoped to continue progressing as a running back and fullback.
However, he was passed over by Division I programs for an athletic scholarship, so Conner, never one to back down from a challenge, walked on at the University of Kentucky, where the coaching staff was only too happy to help him develop his skills as a fullback.
“I just wanted an opportunity to play, and if I had to be a fullback, then I had to be a fullback,” said Conner, who was named to the starting lineup as a sophomore. “I guess they liked my physical style of play.”
The man who, prior to his senior season, was named the “Best Blocking Back” in the Southeastern Conference by the Birmingham News in their 2009 preseason edition could also do more than just block.
He ran the ball 54 times for 247 yards (4.6 yards per carry) and four touchdowns. As a receiver out of the backfield, he had 25 receptions for 147 yards and four touchdown receptions.
“Sometimes people forget that I can actually carry the ball and catch it,” he said with a slight chuckle.
When Conner was finished, he was ranked the third best fullback out of 86 entering the 2010 draft, according to NFL Draft Scout, which in its post-draft outlook, described Conner as “a bruising, traditional type of fullback who can push the pile as a lead blocker.”
Jet-ting to the NFL
Conner’s college career was good enough to get him drafted in Round 5 (139th overall) by the New York Jets, for whom he spent a little more than two seasons.
As a member of Rex Ryan’s offense, the young rookie began to acclimate to life in the NFL under the guidance of veteran fullback Tony Richardson, a three-time NFL Pro Bowler, whose footsteps Conner would eventually follow.
“From day one, when I first walked into the facility, T-Rich was a big help to me,” said Conner.
“We pushed each other on the field, but at the end of the day, we were great friends. He was definitely someone who helped me grow as a pro.”
He’s taught me a lot of different things as far as like staying on top of your tools, sharpening your tools every day after practice, and doing the extra work like taking care of your body and all the things that allowed him to play for over 15 years in the league.
Richardson also helped keep Conner, who was already a humble player, focused on getting better every day, even as the young fullback became a hit with the Jets' coaching staff for his hard-nosed style of play.
It was Conner’s physical style that caught the attention of former Jets special teams coordinator Mike Westhoff, who designed a play called “The Terminator Trap” around Conner’s athletic ability.
“The Terminator Trap” called for Conner to run a trap on kickoff returns that would help create a hole for the returner to exploit.
“Here I am, a rookie, trying to make the final 53," Conner said. "For Coach Westhoff, who is a big special teams guy that's been around a lot of years, to name a play after me, that was an honor right there.
"I don’t think it happens too much, especially for a rookie. I felt pretty good about that,” he added.
At the end of the day, the NFL is a business in which, if a player can no longer perform at a high level, he is cast aside.
“The Terminator” found that out in a hurry when, in 2012, a sprained MCL and a hamstring injury limited him to just three games.
Instead of waiting for their young lead blocker to heal, the Jets decided to waive him with an injury settlement.
Conner’s career with “Gang Green” ended after just 35 games in which he rushed for 88 yards on 21 carries as well as two touchdowns and eight receptions for 17 yards.
“It was definitely hard, because I never would have thought that in a million years, even though I know how the business goes, that I would be let go like that,” Conner said.
“I was doing well and I was growing as a player, and I had a setback, but I thought I’d be back to play that year. So that experience taught me what kind of business this is, and, I think, it made me stronger.”
This past summer, Conner was invited to compete in his first training camp with the Bengals; a camp that, like his first with the Jets, saw the team’s daily practices and meetings chronicled on Hard Knocks.
In fact, the season finale of Hard Knocks captured the conversation between Conner and Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis in which Lewis informed the stunned fullback that he hadn't made the roster cut despite the fact that Conner had done everything the coaches asked of him.
“I’ll Be Back”
After being let go by two teams, and also after seeing the market for fullbacks dwindle to where guys like Pro Bowlers Vonta Leach (Ravens) and Michael Robinson (Seahawks) drew very little interest on the open market—Conner refused to give up hope of finding a team that would allow him to flourish.
“Once I was released by Cincinnati, I knew that a lot of teams out there still use a fullback and that I could be successful if I could just have an opportunity for the right fit.”
The right fit turned out to be the Giants. He was the main fullback the team had on its radar after it lost Hynoski.
“That definitely made me feel good that they had that confidence in me and that I could get the job done for them,” Conner said.
“It’s hard because someone had to get injured for me to have a spot, but it’s a rough business, and I was lucky to find a home with the Giants for this year.”
Coming into a new offensive system once the season has begun is challenging enough for anyone, but through constant study and hard work, Conner managed to pick up enough of what he needed to know within a couple of weeks.
“John has done a phenomenal job. He came in here on short notice and he lined up and has done what we needed him to do,” said running back Brandon Jacobs.
Jacobs, who, like Conner, came in following an injury at the position, credited Giants running backs coach Jerald Ingram for systematically working to bring guys like Conner up to speed as quickly as possible.
Jerald did a good job of teaching him areas. I think that’s what you have to do when, during the middle of the season, you get guys [who] don’t know too much of the offense. You can’t rush and teach them the whole thing right there. You just have to go piece by piece, and I think Jerald has done a good job with that.
John learned what he needed to learn and he’s so effective for us now and I don’t think the running game would be going where it’s been going now without him.
“It wasn't a really a complicated offense, but once I learned the language, that’s when everything started to click, and I felt right at home," said Conner.
A Secret Superstar
Conner’s name is rarely mentioned on Sundays, but such is the life of an NFL fullback, a special individual who toils anonymously.
That kind of anonymity is just fine with Conner, who embraces his role, and is comfortable with it.
“It’s something I’m used to,” he said. “When I came to the NFL, I knew what my role was, so I just try to do it to the best of my ability.
“I’m perfectly happy being a team player. As long as we are winning, that’s all that matters.”
Andre Brown, who ran for 115 yards on 30 carries in his first game this season, said that having Conner in the lineup has made his job a lot easier.
He’s a hard-nosed guy. It’s very easy following him on power runs because he has a good pop to him and gets a good surge. When he’s running downhill, you’re pretty much guaranteed to get about two to three yards or more.
Conner’s recent efforts have not gone unnoticed by people outside of the Giants' locker room. Pro Football Focus (subscription required) named him the Giants’ Secret Superstar for Week 10 and praised the 26-year-old in its weekly “ReFo” feature on the Giants-Raiders game.
How good has Conner been for the Giants’ running game? In five games, approximately 55.7 percent of the rushing yards have come with Conner on the field. In addition, the Giants have made 17 short-yardage attempts and have scored five touchdowns down by the goal line.
“It’s like a lead blocker who’s running the football, the same as you are, the difference being that he’s blocking somebody,” said Peyton Hillis, himself once a fullback. “So it’s like you have a special helper there helping you run the ball.”
As Conner has learned in his young career, there are no guarantees in the NFL, especially for a fullback, a position that is typically one of the first to go when a team needs a roster spot.
So, rather than stress over the long-term, Conner is taking things one day at a time, controlling what he can, which is his personal improvement.
How much of an effect has John Conner had on the Giants running game?
“Just looking at myself from my rookie year, my second, and third year, I've really grown,” said Conner, who is currently the league's fifth best fullback per the rankings at Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
“My technique has improved, and I’m doing a lot of things a lot better.”
As he becomes more comfortable in the Giants' offense, Conner hopes to earn more of the coaching staff’s trust and provide them with different options.
I just want to continue to show that I’m a very versatile type of player. Not only can I be a lead blocker, I can also catch the ball and run it, and do some of those other things that people wouldn't expect a fullback to do.
If the coaches decide that they don’t need Conner to run or catch the ball, he’d be perfectly fine with that, too.
“I want to be the most physical player on the field, and have my presence felt,” he said. “I’m just looking to go out there every week, do my job, have fun with it and help my team win.”