Football

Character is key word to describe South Carolina guard A.J. Cann

South Carolina guard A.J. Cann was a four-year starter for the Gamecocks.
South Carolina guard A.J. Cann was a four-year starter for the Gamecocks. gmelendez@thestate.com

One NFL draft prospect that teams don’t have to worry about having the proper respect for the game is South Carolina guard A.J. Cann.

Cann, a four-year starter, was a team leader for the Gamecocks, a two-time team captain who draft expert Nolan Nawrocki wrote “is energetic and upbeat and will boost morale in the locker room” in his NFL Draft 2015 Preview.

While Cann’s passion for the game has long run deep, he says it was a 10-day trip to Israel last summer that really helped him appreciate how lucky he is to be able to earn a living playing the game he loves.

“What we did there was, we taught football because football is fairly new there,” Cann said. “I think it helped me a lot, just knowing how much they love the game even though they’ve only played it a couple of years.

“That made me think about the opportunity I’ve had and how blessed I am to play this game each and every day and how close I am to the opportunity I am now.”

Cann went on the trip with his roommate, quarterback Dylan Thompson.

“A guy came up to me and he ran events that traveled across the world doing sports so he asked me and Dylan about it,” Cann said. “It worked out perfectly because it was directly in our break so I said, ‘Why wouldn’t I take the chance, learn about the Holy Land and play football? Why wouldn’t you want to do that?’”

It’s an example of his character, which Cann believes gives him a leg up on other prospects at his position.

“I think maybe character speaks for itself,” Cann said. “Off the field, as a player, you can trust me. You ask guys back at South Carolina. They never had a problem with me of any issue at all. I think I’m one of those guys you would never have a problem with.”

Truth is, it’s hard to find much of a problem on the field, either. He’s an experienced player who consistently performed at a high level in a tough conference.

“I think I play at a very low (pad) level, and I think I’m athletic and strong,” Cann said. “For a guard, I think I’m really athletic. I’m quick, and I think I can basically block anybody if I put my mind to it. I’ll do whatever I’ve got to do.”

Cann played left guard at South Carolina, but insisted he could also play center — a position he says teams have been asking him about.

“A lot of guys (dress on game day) because they can play both positions,” Cann said. “I would be glad to play either position so I would be able to make that travel roster.”

Cann also says he did lots of zone blocking at South Carolina, though he’s not the quickest lineman and probably best profiles in a man-blocking scheme.

Still, Cann’s makeup, not to mention his anchor strength and awareness in pass protection, figures to make him a possible target in the second round for any guard-needy team especially in today’s pass-happy NFL.

“We are taught that if you are blocking somebody and your man slants out, you have to have your head on a swivel because anybody can be coming at any different angle so you have to be ready to block,” Cann said. “A lot of guys (in the SEC) run stunts, especially in pass situations. You have a lot of twist games and a lot of slants on an angle. That’s why your head has to be on a swivel.”

To reach Terez A. Paylor, call 816-234-4489 or send email to tpaylor@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter @TerezPaylor.

Inside the 2015 NFL Draft: Guards

From now until the draft begins on Thursday, The Star will take a daily look at each position.

▪ What the Chiefs look for: Many offensive guards have carved out NFL careers by being smart and tough. Aside from those characteristics, you’re looking for athleticism — the ability to pull and get to the second level — and strength. The ideal guard can re-anchor against big defensive tackles in the pass rush and move them in the running game. You also want good awareness in pass protection to pick up stunts and short-area quickness.

▪ Chiefs’ needs: The Chiefs traded for Ben Grubbs and signed him to an extension, so he is entrenched at left guard for the foreseeable future. The right guard position figures to be manned by last year’s starter, Zach Fulton, or veteran Paul Fanaika, who signed a three-year deal in the offseason. Neither performed at a high level last year, so a developmental player could be in the cards come the draft. Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, Ricky Henry and Jarrod Pughsley are other developmental guards on the roster.

▪ Sleeper: Mark Glowinski of West Virginia (6-4, 307) has the look of a potential starter in a zone-running scheme like the Chiefs. He’s a tough guy with good-enough athleticism who flashes some nastiness in the running game and adequate strength in pass protection. He also tested well at the combine and might be worth a shot in the fifth-round as a long-term pick who may be capable of chipping in immediately.

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