COLUMBIA — As the second round of the NFL draft came to a close Friday, A.J. Cann could feel the despair wash over him. The South Carolina offensive guard even began to think about leaving the draft party being thrown for him in a hotel ballroom, and watching the rest of the event by himself.
And then his phone rang, displaying a 904 area code.
In an instant anguish turned into a very different kind of emotion, one that left Cann slumped against a wall and using one hand to cover the tears welling in his eyes. The Jaguars had taken Cann with the 67th overall pick, the third choice of the third round, and very quickly there were hugs and hand-slaps and friends and family members chanting his name.
“It feels like I just benched three million pounds off my chest,” said Cann, a native of Bamberg. “I’m just ready to get to Jacksonville, I’m just ready to get started. I’m excited. I’m not even that far away from home. My family and friends can come see me play. That’s one of the best things about it.”
In Jacksonville, Cann will vie for playing time on an offensive line protecting quarterback Blake Bortles, and on a team that went 3-13 last season but has some promising pieces on offense including former USC receiver Ace Sanders. But Jacksonville seemed a long way away Friday, as Cann was bypassed in the second round by one team after another, including several he had interviewed with in the pre-draft process.
“It was beginning to get stressful,” he said. “I knew the first round (Thursday) night was kind of a question, but I was prepared for the second round. And then after the last pick in the second round, I was like — dang. Because there were some teams that were really interested. I was like, OK, this team’s going to call, and then I look at my phone and it’s a Florida area code. I pick it up, and it’s Jacksonville. I don’t know what to say.”
Soon Cann was pacing the hallway outside the ballroom, the phone glued to his ear, a smile spreading across his face. His father Isiah had been next to him for the entirety of the unexpectedly long wait.
“He would get anxious, and then I would say some encouraging things and he would respond back,” Isiah Cann said, his eyes red. “I kind of kept him so he could stay level, because he was in a position he had never been in. So I had to be there for him.”
Cann started 51 games at South Carolina, second-most in school history behind the 53 started by center T.J. Johnson from 2009-12. He was named second-team All-SEC and second-team All-America following his senior campaign. He became the 16th Gamecock drafted in the past four years, with offensive lineman Corey Robinson and tailback Mike Davis likely to join him Saturday.
Why did his draft stock slide? Some estimate because the 6-4, 311-pound Cann played solely guard at South Carolina, and NFL teams like offensive linemen who can work at different positions. But Jaguars general manager David Caldwell told reporters in Jacksonville that Cann might play center in addition either guard slot.
“He’s strong, he’s heavy-handed. He’s a good athlete. He can play left guard, he can play right guard. He can probably play center. We’ll see where it’s at,” said Caldwell, who met with Cann at the NFL combine. “We’ll have great competition in there this year, and we’ll take it from there.”
Caldwell also received the stamp of approval from Gamecocks head coach Steve Spurrier. “He loved the kid,” he said. “I believe he was the team captain. He was a great team leader. He’s as polished as you’re going to find. He has an upbeat personality, and he’s a great cultural fit in this organization.”
Cann’s next step will be mini-camp, which opens May 6. “It’s been my dream since I was 6 years old, that’s when I started playing football,” he said. “The time is now. I’m just ready to go.”
And his father is ready to see it. “Overwhelming,” Isiah Cann said. “I was like that when he went to college, and I could see him play on television. To see him get an opportunity to do something he’s always wanted to do — I’m speechless.”