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October 7, 2010

Cunningham Settles Into Role

Losing a talent like Weslye Saunders was going to be a hurdle, but South Carolina's coaching staff had a plan. It felt comfortable with the replacements - Patrick DiMarco and Justice Cunningham - and figured that as long as those two did what the staff thought they could, the hurdle wouldn't be as high as first thought.

It's getting smaller every week.

While the tight end position has not been an offensive threat for the Gamecocks this year, it has been solid. DiMarco has caught seven passes for 46 yards while Cunningham has one for 7; but the two have combined to replace and perhaps better Saunders' would-be contributions.

DiMarco can handle the offense, where Saunders was very proficient. The blocking, a troublesome spot for Saunders, has been Cunningham's job.

Make that, a specialty.

"I don't think I play just to block, but that's what I really take pride in, because I came from my high school and that's about all I did," Cunningham said on Wednesday. "I got to take pride in it."

The sophomore cut his teeth last year as a backup to Saunders, known as a guy who could offer an extra block on a running play and who might be able to catch a pass or two. With DiMarco as the de facto "catching" tight end, it falls to Cunningham to keep putting his body between the defenders and his quarterback.

OK.

"He takes pride in it," position coach Jeep Hunter recently said. "If there's anything that he wants to be known as, it's to be a very good blocker here in his time at the University of South Carolina."

An All-State performer from the same stretch of Highway 9 that produced Cliff Matthews, Cunningham got a taste of SEC blocking as far back as high school. When his Central Eagles played Matthews' Cheraw Braves, Cunningham was often going up against Matthews, who played tight end/defensive end the same as he did.

"I didn't knock him down, but when I first played against Cliff Matthews, I had a chance to block him," Cunningham said, "and I thought, 'I can do this.'"

He followed Matthews to USC and was asked to do the same chore once he got to practice. Again, he didn't knock Matthews over but he slowed him up enough to draw a raised eyebrow from the all-SEC performer.

Playing behind Saunders last year, Cunningham got into 13 games but was known more as the guy who was brought in on running plays. He caught two balls for 23 yards but dropped a few more, perhaps giving him a bit of an unfair reputation.

He has worked on it this year, but the playbook has mostly counted on the running game and then deep passes to Alshon Jeffery. Still, Cunningham would like it known that the option is there.

"Everybody would like that, but as long as we're winning, I'm all right," he remarked.

"He takes pride in catching the ball, and that's the thing he wants to be," Hunter said. "He says, 'The passes that are thrown to me, I want to take advantage of.' We split DiMarco and Justice out; you just haven't seen it as much because we haven't had to use it as much at certain times in the game."

But if it doesn't, Cunningham will keep sticking his nose into the pile and trying to clear a lane. One of the Gamecocks' primary plays is DiMarco on one side, Cunningham on the other, ball to Marcus Lattimore over left guard, so it seems a good bet that Cunningham's minutes won't decrease.

Neither will his intensity.

"It's been an adjustment, work on the system, every play, every practice," Cunningham said. "Try to keep the spot with all the competition we have."

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