South Carolina junior A.J. Cann brings plenty of experience to his spot on the offensive line this football season, with his 25 career starts being the most among returning players.
But the 6-foot-4, 314-pound left guard knows he must bring more than skill and know-how to the team. He received a direct message from offensive line coach Shawn Elliott in spring practice that he has taken to heart.
“Coach Elliott said he wanted me to be more of a vocal leader and take a leadership role,” Cann said. “That’s what I’ve been doing all summer. I’ve been yelling a whole lot more, getting on guys and getting guys going.”
Cann helps front an offensive line that’s expected to be one of the team’s strengths. Three other returning starters — fellow guard Ronald Patrick and tackles Corey Robinson and Brandon Shell — join Cann. The only new starter is Cody Waldrop, a redshirt freshman taking the place of four-year starter T.J. Johnson at center.
Cann, an All-SEC preseason third-team selection, believes that if this group can start strong, the younger players across the offense will follow their lead.
“It’ll be a great year if we take that leadership role and they feed off the energy we’ve got,” he said.
Elliott has noticed that taking place as camp has progressed. He cites the linemen’s take-charge attitude as a positive.
“From a communication standpoint, how they’re talking to each other down the line is something that’s gone a little bit further than we’ve had,” Elliott said. “You take a guy like A.J. Cann, who probably didn’t speak a whole lot (in the past). But now he’s telling the center, (and) he’s got to direct Cody (Waldrop) at times, and I’m pleased with that. From right to left, they’re doing a good job.”
Last season, the line paved the way for an offense that scored 30 or more points eight times. Cann sees no reason why the offensive output can’t improve.
“This is our second year together on the offensive line, and the experience is there,” Cann said. “With Cody coming in, I feel that even though T.J.’s not there any more, he shares a lot of similarities to T.J. He’s big, strong and smart.”
Cann looks around the field on offense and sees other players who can replace departed standouts such as tailback Marcus Lattimore and wide receiver Ace Sanders, who have gone on to the NFL.
“Even though Ace and Marcus are gone, I still feel like we have experience in the backfield and the wide receivers,” he said. “We have a chance of being a great team. Once we practice everything we need and plan to perfection, everything will be on track.”
It also doesn’t hurt that a pair of experienced quarterbacks — Connor Shaw and Dylan Thompson — are around to direct the offense. Cann, who roomed with Thompson over the summer, sees their ability to both pass and run effectively as an advantage for the offense, even if it means the line must make occasional mid-play adjustments from pass blocking to run blocking if they take off.
“To tell you the truth, I like when they both run because it throws the defense off-balance,” Cann said. “They’re both terrific players. Dylan’s an exciting guy to be around, and Connor’s an exciting guy to be around, especially on the field. The energy they bring is incredible. You never know what to expect out of those two guys.”
He’s confident that as long as the Gamecocks stay mentally and physically prepared, they can be successful. Elliott has the same sort of faith in his starting linemen.
“The first team is doing really well competing out here every day,” Elliott said. “It’s really a blessing having guys who know what they’re doing today and have the right mindset to get things accomplished. So we’re moving forward.”