After one of the busiest weekends of his life, Salvatore Cannella knew he had a tough choice to make.
The No. 2-ranked JUCO tight end was fresh off a four-day, official-visit binge. Cannella spent last Thursday evening to Saturday morning in Auburn. He quickly turned around to get to Austin, Texas. Cannella visited the Longhorns from Saturday afternoon to Monday morning.
Both trips provoked similar emotions — that feeling prospects get when they feel ready to commit. But he needed to finish the journey, return home to Chicago and back to Scottsdale C.C. (Ariz.) to finalize his decision.
“When I left Auburn, I was like, ‘I’m going to Auburn.’ Then when I left Texas, I was like, ‘OK, I’m going to Texas,'” Cannella told SEC Country. “It honestly took a day to talk with my family and my brother. I decided to write some things down and look at my future and what I’m trying to do and what’s the best path to get that way.”
That pros-and-cons session didn’t separate his three top choices — Auburn, Texas and Maryland — by much. The Tigers and the Longhorns, the late recruiting arrivals, rose to the top based on the traditional clout of the programs.
From there, relationships and playing time took over.
Cannella’s bond began with tight end coach Scott Fountain earlier in the season. Fountain traveled to Arizona on Dec. 1 for a face-to-face encounter, which in turn, resulted in an Auburn offer soon after. Texas’ staff took a similar approach, and it forced Cannella into his dueling official visits.
At Auburn, he fostered a friendship-like bond with Gus Malzahn and Rhett Lashlee, something recruits often describe as a recruiting difference-maker for the Tigers.
“It was just the feel after talking with the coaches. I feel like I got pretty close with their coaches,” Cannella said. “We connected on more of a personal level than just football. I was honestly just blown away by everything.”
Auburn survived a late push by Texas. That experience provided all the bells and whistles you would expect from a Lone Star State official visit. Cannella was mesmerized by the big-city feel of Austin. He spent part of Saturday at the Longhorn Network studios, rocking Texas jerseys and gear.
Similarly to Auburn, Cannella’s rich connection with Tom Herman and staff made it a pressure-filled decision.
“When I got there, I was so surprised and blown away by how nice and big everything was,” he said. “Austin is a ridiculous. It was really surprising. It felt right there.”
Auburn, however, just felt a little more right.
How Salvatore Cannella fits in
I can hear the Finebaum callers now: What we do that for, pawwwl, we don’t even throw to ’em?
That’s true, if you’re looking strictly at the last two seasons. It’s been well-detailed just how absent the tight end has been from the Auburn offense in recent memory — the only touchdown coming via a semi-trick play.
But this mindset — one shared by many in the Auburn fan base — helps explain exactly why Cannella became a top target and why he chose the Tigers in the end. Malzahn, Lashlee and Fountain knew as well as anyone the tight end situation Auburn found itself in following the departure of Landon Rice.
So they began pushing for tight ends at all levels, including Tre’ McKitty and No. 1 JUCO TE Jeremy Patton. Cannella soon emerged as the primary target. Auburn needed depth at the position, but the Tigers also needed a pass-catching element to open up the playbook.
Malzahn admitted as much Wednesday when talking about the Cannella signing.
“Tight end is one of those areas that we needed more depth this year,” Malzahn said, now able to speak publicly about JUCO signees.
That’s not meant to be an all-out knock on Jalen Harris. It’s just that Harris and Cannella are two completely different players. Tight ends are often pigeon-holed into being a certain type of play when, in reality, it’s just like every other position. Some players have one skill set, some players have another.
Harris is an H-back type of tight end who emphasizes his blocking role. He doesn’t blow you away with his speed. He’s likely not dominating defenders in 1-on-1, pass-catching situations.
Cannella can. His basketball background provides footwork, speed and explosiveness that no other tight end on the roster — or really any since C.J. Uzomah — can match.
That’s how he was used at Scottsdale C.C. Check the tape below for yourself. It pops.
“We needed some speed there, too. We feel like Sal has a chance to really help us immediately,” Malzahn said. “I think that was attractive to him, the fact that we needed some help at that position. He’s seen what we’ve done in the past. And you’re exactly right. When we were at our best, we had a tight end that really can do some things.”
Texas brought tradition and a young head coach. Cannella admired that. The Longhorns also bring several unknowns. Will Herman work out? How will the offense operate? What is my tight end competition?
Auburn provided a much more clear path to playing time. For a junior college player with three years remaining, Cannella’s clock ticks a little faster than most.
“Being a junior college guy, somewhere where you can come in and play right away. Of course, I’m going to have to earn the spot,” Cannella said. “Just looking at the business and football side of it, Auburn gave me the best chance to win and work toward my goal of making it to the league.”
The unconventional route
Making it to the league, you say?
It’s a lofty goal for someone who took the journey Cannella did. Ask most people from his Chicago high school. They probably, at one point or another, told him he should give it up. Why try to extend your football career? You’ve barely even played in your life, they said.
That pretty much sums up the consensus reaction when Cannella left Illinois to gray-shirt at Scottsdale C.C — save one opinion.
“When I went JUCO, I’ve never had more people doubt me in my life,” Cannella said. “But just the person I am, I always knew I was meant for some big things. When I went to Scottsdale, you can ask anybody, I told everybody the day I gray-shirted that I was going to play in the SEC. It took some patience.”
Even JUCO seemed like a strange reality for the basketball star turned football dreamer.
Cannella played wide receiver for the non-varsity team during his freshman and sophomore years at St. Viator just outside of Chicago. He decided to go with his first love during his junior year, sticking solely to basketball.
But a reality hit him entering his senior year of high school. He missed the gridiron. And, for the first time, he saw the football field as the best path to athletic excellence.
“I kinda missed it. All my friends were playing. I kinda knew I regretted not playing my junior year,” Cannella said. “But there’s too many 6-foot-6 power forwards that try to make it in basketball. There’s not nearly as many 6-6 tight ends.”
Cannella returned — and shined, though it went mostly unnoticed.
He snagged 31 passes for 521 yards and 7 touchdowns, which included a 60-yard score. That and his rare combination of size and explosiveness wasn’t enough to catch Division I attention on short notice. In fact, only Illinois State was willing to offer so much as a preferred walk-on spot.
Cannella, inspired by his brother’s baseball path, went the junior college route. Even there, he had to take the long way. Cannella started at Scottsdale C.C. as a part-time student who gray-shirted his first year on campus. All he could do was practice and study.
Those spring practices were all Cannella need to get on radars. Hawaii, Kansas, Rutgers and other extended offers. They didn’t even need to see game film to know they wanted the big, receiving tight end.
Eventually, the best programs in the country — the ones in major need of tight end, at least — came calling and offering. It’s the whole Last Chance U mantra, only it wasn’t televised.
The drama hits just the same, though.
“This isn’t necessarily a story that’s going to inspire anyone, but it’s something you don’t hear about all the time,” Cannella said. “Just because you don’t have looks out of high school, that doesn’t mean it’s over with. There are other ways to do it.”
Phone call with Stidham
The question everyone has been asking: With Stidham committed, who else will that help land in the 2017 class?
Pass-catchers are the obvious initial response. It didn’t happen Wednesday with Tarik Black, but maybe it will with future decisions from Henry Ruggs and others. And, in a way, it helped with Cannella.
Stidham’s announcement didn’t play a direct role. But Cannella raved about the skill set Stidham brings, though he noted both of them still have jobs to earn.
“That was crazy. I kinda had a feeling that he was going to commit there before. They were telling me on the visit how they thought they were going to get him.” Cannella said. “He’s as good as it gets.”
After Stidham’s commitment, Cannella still didn’t have his mind made up. That’s when the 6-foot-6 tight end accepted a phone call from a special recruiter.
You guessed it: Jarrett Stidham.
The newly-committed transfer reached out to the fellow JUCO prospect to talk all things Auburn and get a feel for where the Tigers stood for Cannella’s upcoming decision. It wasn’t the game-changing factor.
But the well-time commitment and phone call certainly didn’t hurt.
“The day he made his decision, he called me. I was just asking him how he felt. His situation and whatnot,” Cannella said. “It was big time. I’ll be happy to catch 10-plus touchdowns from him if we get that opportunity.”
Busy day of ups and downs
If you missed anything that happened on a full Wednesday of recruiting, take a look.