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Rookie's big chance

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Dan Connolly never seemed to be good enough. Major college football turned up its nose at Connolly, then the NFL draft snubbed him. Thursday night, however, Connolly will be taking dead aim on an NFL roster spot.

It's the biggest game of his life. While everyone else will be doing their best to get this game over and done with and move on to the regular season, Connolly will be playing for his veritable football life.

"Yeah, it's my career right here," Connolly said with a wry yet resigned look on his face.

This is it. He knows it. If you wanna be a pro football player, kid, you gotta do it now.

Connolly has done it well enough so far this summer to have made it to final cuts. In the cut to 65, Connolly pushed aside veterans Mike Compton and Brent Smith, two players whose NFL experience totals 20 years.

The rookie from Southeast Missouri State has been real impressive. As early as the second week of training camp, word started to get around that Connolly was a player; he might be a poor man's Brad Meester.

"Pretty steady and I think steady is a good word when you're talking about offensive linemen," coach Jack Del Rio said when asked to describe Connolly, 6-4, 318. "He's been unfazed playing against two of the best defensive tackles (Marcus Stroud and John Henderson) in the league. He's been solid. He's done a good job for us so far."

Del Rio announced at his mid-day press conference that Smith had been released. The balance of the Jaguars' cuts would be announced later in the afternoon.

"I thought I'd have the opportunity to be drafted. When that didn't happen, I met with the coaches here and I liked what I saw. I still knew it would be tough to make the team. They told me I'd have to learn to play guard and center," Connolly said.

He expects to get a long look on Thursday night, first at guard and then at center. Del Rio told reporters the team's starters would be taken out of the game early, which probably means Connolly will enter the game early in the second quarter.

"The two major keys to this game are to complete the evaluation process and to get our team to the opener healthy," Del Rio said.

Connolly, of course, is one of the major players in the evaluation process. He's a classic bubble guy, but that's nothing new for him. Big Ten schools recruited him coming out of high school, then decided against offering him a scholarship. He nearly had to settle for a Division II offering. The NFL wasn't sure about him either.

"I don't think it's been any fault of mine. I've just been overlooked," he said. "I was at a small school so (the NFL) didn't know if I could play against big competition. I played tackle for four years and my height wasn't good enough to play tackle."

He never, however, lost sight of his dream.

"I definitely have a dream of being a starter one day. I didn't just come here to make some money for awhile," Connolly added.

Thursday night, Connolly will not be overlooked. The spotlight will shine directly on him. This is his chance to make it to the big time.

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