Lester Hayes first took notice of Gareon Conley in the fall of 2015, with the Oakland Raiders iconic cornerback scribbling his observations on a notepad as he filled his Saturday afternoons watching college football.
Conley, then at Ohio State, grabbed the attention of “The Judge” with his understated speed and technique.
“That boy’s got good feet,” Hayes said of Conley this week. “He’s not a 4.45-speed guy. He’s more like 4.4-flat. That boy can catch up. You’ve got to have a burst, a turbo charge in one step. He’s got it.”
The 6-foot, 195-pound Conley is not the biggest cornerback in the league, so he’ll never be as physical as Hayes was in his prime. But that was Hayes giving Conley some pregame pointers, which did not include stickum, on Sunday at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum.
And that was Conley playing 59 of 60 defensive snaps and making life miserable for Pittsburgh Steelers All-Pro receiver Antonio Brown, who was limited to a season-low 35 yards receiving on five catches.
That came one week after the Raiders held Kansas City Chiefs wideout Tyreek Hill to one catch for 13 yards.
Against the Steelers, Conley also tipped a pass that resulted in an acrobatic interception by linebacker Tahir Whitehead. Conley led the Raiders with two passes defensed, though he did lose leverage on the near-disastrous hook-and-ladder play to JuJu Smith-Schuster late in the game.
The natural talent was always there, right? That’s how and why Conley was a first-round draft pick. Confidence and accompanying comfort, though? Those were the questions for the Raiders’ second-year cornerback.
Until now. Conley is ascending while solidifying Oakland’s secondary, making it, along with fellow cornerback Daryl Worley, less of a concern for coach Jon Gruden going forward than it has been in years — and less of a priority when it comes to preparation for the NFL draft.
“Being healthy has made a big difference, and going out there knowing my teammates have my back,” Conley said after putting on his clinic in the Raiders’ 24-21 upset of the Steelers. “I’d say this is the best I’ve felt.”
It is showing.
“He’s a lot more confident now,” Gruden said. “He missed a lot of training camp. He was hurt. Missed most of last season. I think his preparation has been better. I think he’s been able to practice.
“Our secondary coach [Derrick Ansley] has helped him play a role in this. The guy is talented, and he’s gaining confidence each week. Each week he sees himself covering the best guys in football, and he’s having some success. He’s doing the little things right, and he’s getting better every week.”
Entering Sunday’s game, Conley ranked second in the NFL on Pro Football Focus’ Playmaker Index, with a 24.3 percent rate of targeted passes defensed or intercepted.
This is what Oakland was hoping for when it drafted Conley 24th overall out of Ohio State in 2017. But after suffering a groin injury in his first mandatory minicamp, a troublesome shin injury limited him to just two games as a rookie.
Hence Gruden continually referring to Conley as a “rookie” this season.
It was during the first practice of training camp this year that Conley tweaked a hip and became a bystander for most of the exhibition season.
But with two interceptions, he is tied for the team lead with safeties Marcus Gilchrist and Reggie Nelson, whose season came to an end last week with a trip to injured reserve. In fact, Conley tipped the ball to Gilchrist for one of his picks.
“I feel like I’ve done a solid job, but I can always be better,” Conley said. “They put me in the right position to cover, and I just rely on my technique.”
That’s music to the ears of Hayes, who credited the work of Ansley for turning Conley into a more complete cornerback.
“I shared a secret with coach Ansley back in [training camp], the secret that turned me from a linebacker into a corner,” Hayes said. “I’m 63 now, and I never shared this with anybody — can you go left?”
Hayes was referring to a natural right-handed player having the same flexibility, mobility and dexterity after switching to his non-dominant side midstride.
“I could go left with a turbo-burst,” Hayes said. “And in the bump-and-run, it’s about turning your left hip quick. Gotta go past cat-quick and go cheetah-quick.
“[Conley] bumps well, and his technique is strong, based upon who is teaching him, and coach Ansley is doing it. You’ve got to be coached up. You have to have burst, and you have to trust your technique.”
Conley is taking to the lessons, from both his position coach in Ansley and one of the most popular and successful Raiders in franchise history in Hayes.
“He’s very good, and he uses both sides,” Hayes said of Conley. “I just told him, ‘You’ve got to trust it. Trust your technique and work on your left side, your left thrust, your left shiver, your left shoulder. You must brand your medulla through training. And if you get beat, turn the page. You can’t live in the past.’
“That boy can play.”