SPARTANBURG, SC - It was inevitable Dan Connor would play football. His father was a player and still coaches high school ball. Both of his older brothers played and now coach, and there is video floating around of Connor as a toddler dressed in full football gear showing off his three-point stance.
Connor starred in high school, set Penn State's career tackles record and seemed poised to be successful in the NFL, too, as a third-round pick.
After two rocky years of injuries and playing behind a two-time Pro Bowl pick, Connor is about to finally get his big chance as the Carolina Panthers' starting middle linebacker.
"I didn't mind it too much early on and then you start to anxious," Connor said Tuesday. "About halfway through last season I started to get anxious, wanting to get out there and start playing."
A key injury has put Connor on this unexpected path.
He went into offseason workouts expecting to back up Beason at middle linebacker again and play special teams until weakside linebacker Thomas Davis tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in June for the second time in a year.
The coaching staff decided to make a bold switch. Beason, who set a Carolina record with 169 tackles last season, was moved to Davis' old spot and Connor replaced Beason in the middle.
"I wasn't sure what they were going to do and I got a call from Jon and he said they might try that as an option during (offseason workouts)," Connor said. "We did it and Jon felt good. Jon's making plays on that weak side so he was liking it. I was liking it because it's my natural position, in the middle. So it kind of worked out."
The Panthers started training camp with that lineup and will use it in Thursday's preseason opener at Baltimore.
"I think Jon has looked very good at (weakside) linebacker," coach John Fox said. "I mean, I'm not so sure Jon wouldn't look good at any of the linebacker (positions). I'm anxious to see some of those other guys in game conditions."
That means Connor must show he not only has the speed and range to play in the middle, but also deal with defensive checks at the line of scrimmage, a job Beason gave up with his switch to the outside.
So far, he hasn't had a chance to prove much at football's highest level. The 6-foot-2, 231-pound Connor has played in 19 games over two seasons, mostly on special teams. He's never started an NFL game as he adjusted slowly from his days at Penn State, when the game came easy.
"Mentally, that was the biggest jump," Connor said. "Physically, it's the same type bodies you're going against, same type speed. But the mental aspect of the game is hard. There are so many defenses, so many checks, so many different nuances, different alignments. It's hard to pick it up and play comfortable like you're playing in college."
It didn't help that Connor spent the final 13 games of his rookie season on injured reserve with a torn ACL in his left knee. He returned last season and played mostly special teams until late in the season, when he replaced an injured Na'il Diggs at strongside linebacker and had 10 tackles and recovered a fumble against New England.
Connor gained even more confidence in offseason workouts when he said he "started to hit my stride" in the defensive system.
"I could start to play like I did in college because I'm not thinking as much but being on top of my assignments," Connor said.
Connor will be one of the most watched players in Carolina's four preseason games. His family will be watching, too, because football is their life.
His father, Jim, was a defensive linemen who won a national championship at Division III Widener in 1977, and has since coached at the college and high school level.
Brother Jim Jr. played at Boston College and is now coaching high school football in the Boston area. Brother Mike was a quarterback at Delaware and coaches in Pennsylvania.
Now the youngest brother is finally getting his first legitimate chance to start in the NFL.
"Being stuck behind Jon, a Pro Bowler, it's tough to do," Connor said. "Having a position, it's a good opportunity for me."