This installment of Flashes profiles the play of Middle Tennessee State University runner Benny Cunningham. The senior, who was on the Doak Walker Award Watch List this summer, had a 217-yard, 5-touchdown afternoon against Georgia Tech in September. By November, he was out for the season with a torn patella tendon. what quality did he flash against the Yellow Jackets that makes Cunningham worth monitoring as a street free agent? Keep reading . . .
Cunningham is a 5-10, 210-pound, power runner who reminds me of a mix between Stephen Davis and Fred Lane. Not as big as Davis, but not as shifty as Lane. Power and pad level are the best aspects of Cunningham’s game as a runner. He attacks defenders and knows how to win the battle for extra yards. This touchdown run against Louisiana-Monroe where he bulls over the middle linebacker at the six yard line and then bulldozes a second defender the remaining five yards is a great example.
Cunningham tore his patella tendon during his senior year, but was still named a second-team All-Sun Belt runner. He has the physical dimensions one would want to see from a running back, and his 21-carry, 217-yard, 5-touchdown performance against Georgia Tech in late September kept him on the NFL radar before his season-ending injury.
This injury will likely make Cunningham a street free agent looking for a tryout. Fortunately, Middle Tennessee State likes Cunningham enough that they moved its Pro Day to as late a date as possible to give its runner more time to heal before a workout.
When I watched Cunningham in this Georgia Tech game, I wanted to see evidence of short-area quickness against a bigger-name team. The Yellow Jackets would likely get penetration at the line of scrimmage that could model some of the situations he’d see against professionals. Although I didn’t see great lateral agility from Cunningham in this game, there was one play in particular where Cunningham flashed it.
The situation was a 1st-and-15 with 10:33 in the third quarter from a 2×2 receiver, pistol set.
Cunningham feels the penetration coming across the face of his backside linemen and begins his cutback with a plant of his outside leg. This first cut will get him to the edge.
Most college runners are good enough to make one good cut and get down hill. That’s just a basic staple of running the football. However, it’s that second cut to transition from a bounce outside back to a down hill run that will be important for Cunningham to execute at the professional level. If he can’t, he’s going to see enough attempts for three- and four-yard losses that keep him from ever seeing an NFL lineup.
This is the kind of direction change that runners can refine from doing drills with rope ladders and cones. It doesn’t mean every runner can get quick enough to execute moves on top of moves in the NFL, but when a player demonstrates he can do so in a game it signals that he has good feet without thinking about it. This second cut above is one of those instances. It gets Cunningham in a position where he’s now heading down hill on the outside linebacker.
Once Cunningham gets his pads square, he does what he does best: get low, drive those muscular thighs forward and attack the defender who was in position to catch a ride on the BC Econoline rather than hit MTSU’s power back.
Cunningham gains four yards on this play-landing at the tip of this arrow after dragging his opponent five yards after initial contact. It’s not the flashiest run of the day. It’s not the most meaningful, either. But to someone looking for NFL-caliber skills, this play models some of the things Cunningham will have to do if he wants any chance of success at the next level.
It’s worth noting that this 2×2 pistol was the primary running formation that MSTU used to feature Cunningham. Sometimes the receivers were split, other times they were stacked. The pistol look and Cunningham’s dimensions remind me somewhat Alfred Morris and the Redskins running game. If Cunningham can return to complete health and do more than just “flash” lateral agility and short-area quickness, he could be a nice backup for Morris.