As receivers, Adrian Cannon and Darrius Heyward-Bey are not much alike.
Heyward-Bey is the jet-quick workout warrior who surged to the No. 7 pick in April’s NFL Draft. Cannon is a bulky outside option who enters his junior year with six career receptions.
Nevertheless, the two forged a bond at Maryland. Some of it stemmed from their similar backgrounds - both were raised by strong single mothers determined to see their children succeed. And then there was a shrewd work ethic; Heyward-Bey and Cannon were constant companions during extra film work after practice.
And when Heyward-Bey opted to depart for the NFL last year, he offered Cannon a message for the future.
“There’s one thing I want you to do: I want you to take over and be a leader,” Cannon recalled Heyward-Bey telling him. “I know you’re not the most vocal guy, but that’s what I want you to do. I’m going to tell a couple other guys this, but I want you to follow in my footsteps and be better than me.”
If this month’s preseason camp is any indication, Cannon is unlikely to disappoint his mentor.
At 6-foot-2 and 204 pounds, Cannon is arguably the Terrapins’ strongest option at receiver and is expected to be a starter.
Cannon provides hints of his capabilities each day at practice. Last week, cornerback Anthony Wiseman appeared to have provided optimal coverage in a goal-line drill. Cannon simply leapt higher and wrested control of the pass for a touchdown, leaving Wiseman to perform push-ups in the end zone despite doing everything possible to contain his teammate.
“Adrian’s been on a mission,” quarterback Chris Turner said. “He’s always had that about him, where he can be the man.”
All of which prompts the question, where was this guy the past few years?
It required a mix of skill and certainty from the soft-spoken Cannon, who received some minor Division I looks for basketball before becoming Maryland’s first recruit from Michigan since defensive tackle Kris Jenkins and tight end Matt Murphy played for the Terps earlier this decade.
Cannon is the youngest of three children. Both of his older sisters graduated from college, a product of their own efforts as well as the hard work of Shirla Cannon, a single mother now retired from General Motors Corp.
“We had hard times. Sometimes we had good times and bad times,” she said. “We knew if we kept God in our prayers, everything will work out. There were times I had to give things up to make things right for [Adrian]. I just stayed on him all the time for his work as far as school [was concerned].”
Adrian Cannon calls her “my backbone” and was set on making things easier. And he knew his athletic gifts could make that possible.
“Before high school, we sat down and one thing I told her is I promised, ‘You’re not going to have to pay for my college - not one dollar,’ ” Adrian Cannon said.
The fulfillment of his plan came in the form of a scholarship to Maryland, where there was an exodus of receivers after the 2005 season. He needed to take an online algebra class in high school to become eligible for enrollment, teaching himself a full year of math in a semester to secure a place with the Terps.
Yet once he joined the team, his mind wandered. Brandon Miller, his quarterback at Avondale High School and a year younger than him, was involved in a serious car crash back home. Cannon prayed daily, hoping he could receive guidance and figure out if College Park was the right place for him.
Miller ultimately recovered and joined Division II Grand Valley State’s program, and Cannon remained at Maryland. He thrived academically, but the only thing consistent about his football career was inconsistency.
In spurts, he’d look like a future star. At other times, he seemed hopelessly buried on the depth chart.
It appeared he might play a substantial role last fall. But after two catches in the first three games, he barely played until the bowl game. Frustrated, even his academics took a tumble last fall, which led to significant conversations with his mother.
“I just wasn’t focused or [had] my priorities right,” said Cannon, whose mother’s image is tattooed on his left arm. “I got those together and I realized [what was important]. I talked to my mom, and she kept me grounded. She basically said you have to take advantage of the opportunities you have. It doesn’t come around [a lot] and it can be taken away like that.”
His turnaround began in the Humanitarian Bowl, when he took a short pass on the third play and scampered 59 yards for his first career touchdown. Shortly after the season, he and Ralph Friedgen shared a long discussion in which the coach emphasized the importance of renewing his zeal for work.
Cannon rebounded in the classroom, compiling a 3.25 GPA in the spring. He also connected with Turner, emerging as a favored target throughout the spring and summer.
“He’s kind of like a Michael Crabtree,” said Turner, referring to the former Texas Tech star. “He’s faster than people think. He runs really good routes. He’s a big body. There’s plays where I’m sitting [in the film room with offensive coordinator James Franklin] and he says, ‘Why did you go to Cannon on this play?’ And I’ll say, ‘I like my matchup. I like Cannon on so-and-so.’ ”
The entire program could feel the same way this season. Turner, now without the reliable Danny Oquendo, needs a third-down target. And now that Heyward-Bey is playing for the Oakland Raiders, the Terps are seeking a new primary wideout.
Cannon might just fill both roles.
“It’s just amazing how his confidence has changed in his whole life,” Friedgen said. “He’s on a mission to be a good player and to win. … He’s kind of driven right now.”
Holding on to a starting position is Cannon’s next step. Last year’s foibles reminded him of the vast divide between the results from maximum effort and only marginal interest.
“He is very caring person,” Shirla Cannon said. “He wants to go a long way. If he wants to be successful, I think he will get there if he keeps a clear mind.”
Given Adrian Cannon’s record of living up to his promises, there’s a good chance he’ll begin to savor that success this fall.