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Conner starting to find his way

Jets fullback John Conner walks around the stadium

Jets fullback John Conner walks around the stadium greeting the fans on Jan. 2, 2011. Photo Credit: Joe Rogate

Of all the nicknames floating around for Jets fullback John Conner, in Dustin Keller's estimation, there's only one that truly suits his teammate.

"I like 'Neckless,' " Keller said, "because he doesn't have a neck. It's head and shoulders. That's why he knows all those runs over most people would hurt their necks. He doesn't have one to hurt."

References to Conner's litany of funny aliases -- such as "The Terminator" and "Concrete Conner" -- haven't been prevalent this season, attributable partly to some of Conner's early-season inconsistencies. He showed flashes as a rookie last season while serving as Tony Richardson's understudy, but Conner's progress was stunted by the NFL lockout, and he was forced into a starter's role without those precious offseason reps the coaches thought he needed.

But Conner is slowly polishing the raw aspects of his game, and his subtle incremental improvement is one of the underlying reasons the Jets (8-5) have run for 398 yards during a three-game winning streak, a stretch they'll look to extend Sunday against the Eagles (5-8) at Lincoln Financial Field.

"I don't know if there's any fullback playing better than him right now," Rex Ryan said. "I think he's humming at a high level right now. I really think he's been playing great lately. I think early in the year, there might have been some stretches where he wasn't quite as consistent as we would have liked."

"I think he's playing more consistent," running backs coach Anthony Lynn said, "and that's what I'm looking for is consistency. And because of his consistency, I think it's helped our running game."

In college at Kentucky, Conner didn't play in an offense anywhere near as complex as the Jets' and mostly lined up out of the I-formation. But offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer's scheme calls for the fullback to do a lot of things -- last week, for instance, Conner aided in keeping Chiefs pass rusher Tamba Hali under control -- and uses multiple formations and shifts.

Conner has a lot to master. That's why missing those offseason reps, which led to Lynn working with Conner for 15 minutes after practice Wednesdays and Thursdays, was so costly.

"John struggled with that early," Lynn said. "I used to tell people that if they called him Superman because of his blocking ability, whenever we moved him, I called that Kryptonite because he couldn't function under those circumstances."

Schottenheimer remembers seeing a piece of Kryptonite in Conner's midst in a Week 7 win over the Chargers. "You go back earlier in the year, and he was not struggling," Schottenheimer said, "but he gets Mark [Sanchez] hit on the big play where San Diego gets the interception and gets spun on. I think he's gaining confidence and playing really well now. He makes the adjustments now on game day without thinking about it."

Conner said it was a tough transition to being a starter.

"It kind of took a while to get worked into it," he said. "Technically, I'm still a rookie and I didn't get to play as much last year. So I was still working out some of those role things, but I think after a few weeks, I was right there with the first team."

Besides becoming more comfortable moving around and getting more adept at recognizing fronts, Conner is making progress in pass protection with the assistance of linebackers Aaron Maybin and Jamaal Westerman, who give him 15 extra reps after practice. He's also constantly reminded he doesn't have to transform into "The Terminator" on every play.

"I told him before," Lynn said, "that nickname is getting you in a lot of trouble because you want to 'Terminate.' You want to knock out everybody. There's a time and a place for that."

Said Keller, "Last year, he comes in and just knocks the hell out of somebody. This year, a lot more of that stuff has to be under control. You can't . . . be crazy all the time."

Not if he wants to have the type of career Lynn believes he's in line for. "It's hard to find guys like John now," Lynn said. "He's like a throwback. John Conner has the skill set that if he can continue to develop and work the way he's working, he has a chance to be the best guy in the business right now."

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