Versatile Sal Cannella brings new ‘attitude and edge’ to Auburn football’s offense

AUBURN, Ala. — The first thing you notice about Sal Cannella is his hair.

The 6-foot-5, 228-pound tight end already stands out among Auburn football’s offensive players, but the mop of hair sticking out of his helmet makes his presence even more striking. And that’s not the only thing distinguishing Cannella.

While most players on Gus Malzahn’s roster hail from Alabama, Georgia or Florida, Cannella arrived on the Plains after attending Scottsdale Community College in Arizona. Originally, he’s from Schaumburg, Ill., about 45 minutes outside Chicago. Cannella’s right arm and calf is covered with tattoos, including one honoring his Italian heritage.

Courtesy Sean Cannella via Instagram

And all of this, while intriguing, has little to do with why the sophomore has stood out to his new head coach in the early days of fall camp. That praise and attention is coming because of what the lanky receiver could add to the Tigers’ offense in 2017.

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Sal’s a tough guy,” Malzahn said. “He has an attitude and brings an edge. That’s really what has stood out to me about him so far.”

The fifth-year head coach isn’t the only one who’s been impressed. On Auburn’s first day of camp, Cannella worked with Kodi Burns’ receiving group and spent most of his time with the Tigers’ first-team offense.

“Sal’s got good ball skills. Sal’s competitive, really competitive. I like what I’ve seen from him,” offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey said. “He’s got a little edge about him — it’s impressive. He’s a smart football player, knows how to route-run, has really good body control, does a great job catching the ball with his hands. I like what he’s bringing to the table so far.”

It might be an understatement. After sparingly using tight ends in previous years under Malzahn, Cannella is drawing a comparison that will excite Auburn fans — C.J. Uzomah.

Kerryon Johnson says Cannella’s blocking might not match that of the Cincinnati Bengals’ 6-foot-5, 265-pound tight end, but athletically Cannella is superior. And when it comes to receiving ability Cannella’s “got it all.”

“I think Sal is really good, honestly,” the junior running back said. “He catches a lot of contested balls, he’s a big target, he knows how to use his body to block off defenders. He knows how to go and get the ball. He’s a sneaky athlete. I think he’s going to be very big for us this year, I think he really will.”

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Malzahn knew what he was getting in Cannella, who earned the No. 1 JUCO ranking from ESPN after making 29 receptions  for 449 yards and 7 touchdowns. The skill was obvious. Both at Scottsdale and St. Viator High School coaches split Cannella out wide.

“He’s been doing really well,” sophomore receiver Darius Slayton said. “He can really run. He’s also, to be so tall, a pretty quick guy. He does a great job of getting open and catching the ball. He’s doing really well so far.”

Fans got a glimpse of Cannella in the spring game in April and Auburn plans to showcase his versatility — and his overflowing mane — this fall.

“He’s also done some things at H-back,” Malzahn said. “He’s a real versatile player that I think you could see Chip move around this year.”