ALAMEDA – Gareon Conley has a healthy resume. He doesn’t have a track record of ailments, no physical issues chronically keeping him out of games at Ohio State or in high school.
As a matter of fact, he didn’t miss a game with injury as a Buckeye.
That’s why his first season with the Raiders was so frustrating. The 2017 first round draft pick got kicked in the shin during last June’s mandatory minicamp, and it took nearly a full year to feel right again.
Conley hoped rest and rehab would do the trick. It didn’t. It eventually required surgery, which occurred once he was formally placed on season-ending injured reserve.
“It just lingered,” Conley said. “We thought it would get better by taking reps off, but it just kept getting worse, so I just fixed it.”
The rehab process was painstakingly slow for someone looking to push it during this offseason program. Conley remained as patient as possible, and finally got a green light for OTAs and this week’s minicamp.
Conley spoke publicly on Tuesday for the first time since September, admitting the 2017 season was hard to handle.
“It was really difficult, because I’ve never been hurt,” Conley said. “It was like the first time that I’ve really been hurt and where I’ve missed time. Mentally, that’s just the hardest thing. But, I feel like I’ve gotten my confidence back and I feel good.”
That in itself is a major step. Conley’s confidence has grown working with secondary coach Derrick Ansley, improving the mental aspect of his game. There’s no doubting his talent. Conley’s a smooth, agile cover man who makes hard look easy and has many believing a big year’s ahead.
The optimism is welcome, especially after a long run of disappointment when he shin didn’t heal right.
“It has been a dark world that he’s been in, this young man,” Raiders head coach Jon Gruden said. “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. But man is he a good player. When he’s feeling good, you can see why we picked him No. 1 overall.”
Conley believes he has grown mentally as is better equipped to handle setbacks after last year’s trials. He learned to rely on himself, even with family, friends and teammates available to get through tough times.
“I feel like what I learned is that there are people there for you, but at the end of the day you have to be there for yourself,” Conley said. “You’re the only one that can mentally prepare yourself to come back from something.”
Conley had someone to lean on in the locker room, someone who could identify with his struggles. Karl Joseph faced similar, though not identical circumstances the year before. The Raiders’ 2016 first-round pick started his professional career rehabbing from an ACL tear, and was behind the curve at every stage.
Dealing with injury amid a high draft slot’s lofty expectations, isn’t always easy. Joseph understood that. He lived it, too.
“I just know how hard it is coming in as a high draft pick, first round,” Joseph said. “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.”
Conley’s ready to meet high expectations in 2018. He has the talent to be a No. 1 cornerback, even with Rashaan Melvin assuming that title to start the season. Conley fits in well with Paul Guenther’s scheme, which asks corners to play lots of press-man coverage as he did at Ohio State.
He is excited to play with Melvin, Daryl Worley and other new members of the secondary, who are working together well under Ansley.
“There’s no blaming and complaining,” Conley said. “We handle ours and take responsibility for everything. We hold everybody accountable to the highest standard.”