By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 1, 2009
It was one of 148 plays in an obscure bowl game on blue turf, 10 seconds that proved enough time to change the trajectory of one person's college career.
Before that third play in last season's Humanitarian Bowl, Maryland wide receiver Adrian Cannon was an apathetic student and frustrated player who had tuned out coaches and mentors. Since that play -- a 59-yard touchdown reception -- Cannon has become a born-again student and go-to playmaker who has established himself as Maryland's most impressive offensive performer.
The eight-month transformation of Cannon, a junior who coaches believe is poised for a breakout season, has been among the most prominent story lines of summer camp and illustrates how quickly a 21-year-old college athlete can move from potential cautionary tale to emerging star.
"He is a new person, completely," said Rodney Marshall, Cannon's cousin and mentor. "Sometimes they don't get it until they get a little success. You are really only one play away."
The No. 7 who walks around the Gossett Team House these days holds his head high, talks about 10-win seasons and believes he can become the ACC's best wide receiver. He spent many summer mornings running routes alone, and more late nights studying formations. As Maryland Coach Ralph Friedgen said, "He is on a mission."
That player resembles the Adrian Cannon of last fall in name and number only. Maryland was known for three wide receivers last season -- Darrius Heyward-Bey, Danny Oquendo and Isaiah Williams -- and Cannon, for the most part, was drifting away more than distinguishing himself.
Plagued by missed assignments and a sour attitude, Cannon caught just two passes during the regular season. Frustration built. This was not the college career Cannon expected. The 6-foot-2, 204-pound wide receiver from Pontiac, Mich., had been rated the fourth-best prospect in the state in the Class of 2006, but he couldn't make an impact by his third year at Maryland.
"All these guys have been the man in high school, and you come here and you're not the man for a couple years," Maryland wide receivers coach Lee Hull said. "It's a big adjustment. 'I have to wait my turn.' Some people handle it the right way; some people don't. Adrian struggled a little bit."
Cannon's mother, Shirla, whom he regularly turns to for advice, told him that his time would come. But Cannon remained impatient. Friedgen recently offered a blunt assessment, saying, "In the fall, he went into the tank."
Cannon tuned out most coaches, choosing to stew rather than share feelings. He stopped returning calls and text messages from his mentor, Marshall, who had helped train Cannon and guide him through the recruiting process.
Football frustration spawned academic struggles. In class -- if he went -- Cannon barely took notes and instead pondered football. The biggest problem? History 156: History of the U.S. to 1865. The class met three times per week, but Cannon went once or twice a week. He failed, which brought his fall GPA below 2.0.
"Academics were not even in the forefront of my priorities," Cannon said. "I was basically thinking all about football. I was turning my assignments in but just wasn't putting forth all my effort. I was basically just doing them to get done and not for quality."
Then came the Humanitarian Bowl in Boise on Dec. 30, when Cannon, who had begun showing positive signs in practice, started. On the game's third play, Maryland quarterback Chris Turner threw a pass 12 yards over the middle to Cannon, who got in front of an off-balanced Nevada linebacker and raced the rest of the way toward the end zone for the first touchdown of his college career.
Within minutes after the game, Cannon was calling Marshall, a strength and conditioning specialist for the U.S. Tennis Association, to boast about the play and how it would trigger a change in his focus and work ethic. Within a day, Cannon was back in a weight room, wearing an iPod and a determined look, even though most had advised taking time off after the season.
And within weeks, Cannon was retaking the same history class, telling coaches he would earn at least a 'B.' The spring semester was not a make-or-break situation, but Cannon knew he could not afford another semester like the fall of 2008. Hull told him as much.
" 'You want to go to the NFL?' " Hull said he told Cannon. " 'You're not going to go if you flunk out.' His eyes got wide open, and it kind of awakened him. 'Jeez, I got to get my stuff academically in order.' "
Cannon said he attended every class during spring semester, built strong relationships with professors and took copious notes. Cannon told Hull how well he was doing, but Hull remained dubious until progress reports started trickling in from teachers and tutors.
"I barely went out with friends," Cannon said. 'I came home, took a shower, ate, then homework, playbook, talk on the phone a little and sleep -- every day."
Cannon said he earned a B-plus in the same class he had failed -- he now calls it his favorite class -- and had a spring GPA of 3.25. He also performed well in spring practice. Friedgen noticed the change in attitude and had a heart-to-heart with Cannon that spring, telling the player that intelligence was not the issue, focus was, and that he could achieve his goals if he committed himself.
"It's amazing how his confidence has changed in his whole life," Friedgen said. "He is driven right now."
Cannon enters the season proud of his progress on the field and in the classroom. And using the Humanitarian Bowl play as a springboard, Cannon has exceeded coaches' expectations and established himself as the go-to player. He also is 16 credits away from graduating.
"I expected everything to be given to me," Cannon said. "Now, if you are going to give me something, I don't want it. I don't want anything handed to me. I need to fight for everything. It feels so much better. With that bowl game, that score gave me a lot of confidence."