Spring has been good to Spears, and Spears has been good this spring. The climb to the Trojans’ No. 1 tight end spot hasn’t been very steep, but the journey has been quite long.
Even during his short time at Columbia, Spears had Cardinal and Gold flowing through his veins. He attended many a game at the Coliseum as a youth growing up in San Diego. His dad, Bob, attended grad school at USC. His grandfather, the late Dr. Robert Spears, was a professor at the university for 40 years.
Spears, who played his high school ball in Iowa, wasn’t even rated by any of the major recruiting services coming out of high school in 2013. He wound up at Columbia with the thought of playing football and getting the best education possible, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather who were both Ivy League grads.
As a freshman for the Lions, he saw action in just five games and made three catches for 32 yards. He never really conformed to life in the Ivy League.
"It just wasn’t for me," he said.
He put out feelers for places to transfer, but couldn’t find a landing spot, so he started spring semester classes at Columbia in January of 2014. Near the end of the month, he received a call from USC saying that there was room to enroll with an opportunity on the football team as a preferred walk-on.
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"I, basically, packed up my bags and booked a flight for three days later," Spears recalled.
He had to sit out the 2014 season due to NCAA transfer rules, but he still made the most of his opportunity. He walked into a similar situation last spring, with the Trojans being light on depth at tight end. Spears, who was born in Dublin, Ireland, walked on as the No. 3 due to injury behind Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick and Chris Willson — the only healthy bodies at the position at the time.
In the fall, he spent most of his time with the Scout Team which he says was great preparation for today.
"It helped exponentially," Spears said. "It was just coming in being able to work with the Scout Team Offense last year where I was able to block guys like Leonard Williams and J.R. Tavai. That kind of level of competition helped me a ridiculous amount."
Similar to last spring, Spears was going to be the No. 3 tight end once again. However, Bryce Dixon’s status with the team is in flux as he continues to deal with a "student conduct issue" that has kept him off of the field for all of spring.
Cope-Fitzpatrick, who missed all of last season after being declared academically ineligible, has yet to find his footing this spring.
In one of the most bizarre happenings of the spring for USC he’s been leapfrogged by Spears. The walk-on is getting the bulk of the first team reps.
"The situation just kind of fell in my hands and I just want to make the most of it," Spears said.
Added offensive coordinator Clay Helton: "I’m pretty proud of Connor. Pretty proud. He’s doing a wonderful job. He’s a very intelligent kid. Another kid that has, kind of, sat back and learned the system quietly and now is getting an opportunity and making the most of his role."
Once fall camp comes around, the competition should be a little more fierce with incoming freshman Tyler Petite and the addition of Taylor McNamara âa transfer from Oklahoma. It’s also likely incoming linebacker signees Porter Gustin and Osa Masina could see some time at tight end in fall camp.
As for now, it’s the walk-on who has a good grip on the spot.