Football was not Gareon Conley’s first love. The Raiders’ first-round draft pick didn’t even play the sport his freshman year at Massillon Washington High School in Ohio, preferring the basketball court over the gridiron.
“It wasn’t that I didn’t like it,” Conley said Friday. “I was kind of forced to play it, so I didn’t want to do it just because I was forced. I wanted to do something I wanted to do. But I learned to love it.”
As if to show the prudence of that decision, as Conley spoke he was flanked by Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie and head coach Jack Del Rio, who hours before had made the 21-year-old Ohio State cornerback the 24th overall selection in this year’s draft.
It figures to be a scrutinized pick. Conley this week was accused of sexually assaulting a woman at a Cleveland hotel on April 9, allegations he strongly denied in a statement and during a conference call with reporters late Thursday night.
As is customary for a first-round pick, the Raiders flew Conley in and introduced him in a press conference at their facility Friday afternoon. McKenzie opened the conference by asking that questions focus on “football” and not “the issue regarding Gareon.”
The closest Conley came to addressing the issue came when a reporter asked what he has learned off the field during the last week. His answer: “To keep faith, always have a tight support system and just trust yourself. Never lose faith.”
For most of the session, Conley discussed the sport he only started playing seriously as a sophomore in high school, when he saw the doors it could open for him.
“Massillon’s a football town,” Conley said. “I saw people who were going to college for football, and I just felt like I could explore my opportunities by playing multiple sports.”
Conley described his hometown as “kind of like a mini-Ohio State,” the school where he would go on to play for three seasons. Yet Ohio State wasn’t his first love, either. Conley first committed to rival Michigan in the spring of 2012. He later termed that commitment hasty, and when other schools began to show interest he opted to stay in his home state.
After red-shirting his first year at Ohio State in 2013, Conley made his first start in a high-profile matchup against Michigan State on Nov. 8, 2014. It did not go well. Conley, who replaced injured Eli Apple in the starting lineup, was beaten twice on the opening drive for significant plays, causing the Buckeyes to send Apple into the game for him anyway.
At the time, it must have hurt. Now, Conley says it was a future-defining moment.
“I feel like it changed my whole career around,” he said. “I kind of lost self-confidence, and I feel like my coaches and my teammates were really the ones who helped me in that situation. No one batted an eye, no one talked bad about me … And I felt like if they had that much confidence in me, I had to have that self-confidence in myself.”
In his final college season as a junior, Conley was named a team captain and second-team All-Big Ten, recording four interceptions and eight pass break-ups. He was part of a deep Ohio State secondary that two other first-round picks Thursday in safety Malik Hooker and cornerback Marshon Lattimore.
Conley played mostly outside corner his first two seasons. But he started moving inside in nickel defenses to cover opposing slot receivers last year – experience that could help him contribute immediately to the Raiders, who lost slot corner D.J. Hayden to free agency this offseason.
Conley said his move inside arose from a mid-season game against Nebraska, which had a dangerous slot receiver. “(My coach) just said he needed somebody to lock the guy up in the slot,” Conley said, “and I said I could get it done. Ever since then they just kept me in the slot.”
If Conley secures a role with the Raiders, he could be in for another move in a few years, when the franchise relocates to Las Vegas.
“I’m just worried about being in Oakland right now,” he said. “I’m ready to compete for the Oakland Raiders right now.”