Cunningham starting to catch on

USC's backup tight end shows that he's more than just a good blocker

semerson@thestate.comApril 10, 2010 

Justice Cunningham was itching to show he was more than just a good blocking tight end. Even if it did earn him an award.

By the time Saturday's spring game was over, Cunningham had made a name for himself as both a receiving and blocking tight end.

The man who caught two passes as a freshman last year doubled that Saturday - including a touchdown - and coach Steve Spurrier called him the game's MVP.

"It was just a lot of hard work paying off," Cunningham said. "It felt good to finally show what I could do."

Cunningham, a native of Pageland, played in every game last year and was a regular on special teams. He started twice at tight end but spent the vast majority of the time backing up Weslye Saunders.

When fullback Patrick DiMarco had tight end duties added, it could have been a bad sign for Cunningham. Instead, Cunningham had such a good spring that Spurrier wants to cross-train Cunningham at fullback and get him on the field as much as possible.

"We got three that can play right now," Spurrier said of the tight ends. "We could use them all. Could have a three-tight end offense."

Then he laughed.

"Not likely," he said. "But we could have a two-tight end. But we'll see how all that goes."

Prior to the game, Cunningham was named the team's outstanding blocker, beating out the 10 offensive linemen. But he made clear that he wanted more.

"That's always on my mind," Cunningham said. "I don't like just being good at one thing, I want to try and be good at everything I do."

Saunders still seems to be the favorite to start this fall. He has the build (6-foot-6, 273 pounds), has proven himself as a pass-catcher and is an NFL prospect.

But coaches have occasionally been unhappy with Saunders off the field, specifically his comments to the media. He had three catches for 21 yards Saturday.

Enter DiMarco, who had a 14-yard touchdown catch in the first quarter after lining up at tight end. Cunningham was asked if he saw DiMarco's presence as a kick in the butt to him and Saunders.

"I kinda took it as a challenge," Cunningham said. "Because Pat DiMarco, he's a proven player, and he's always consistent. And that's one thing that I've gotta work on, so I like that he's over there to help me out."

The 6-foot-3, 261-pound Cunningham responded Saturday. He got open downfield to haul in passes from Connor Shaw and Stephen Garcia, then caught a 2-yard touchdown pass from Garcia.

"He caught everything," Spurrier said. "A bunch of yards, touchdowns. So Justice had an excellent game."

Reach Emerson at (803) 771-8676.

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