PHOTO (Army Athletics): Cedrick Cunningham celebrates with teammates.
By TOM SHANAHAN
Cedrick Cunningham explained how West Point recruited a guy that knew little about service academy football. In exchange for a chance to play Division I college football, he committed to serve as a future officer during an endless war on terrorism.
It’s not your stereotypical West Point story of son or daughter following their father into the military.
But it is a familiar one among players, I’ve learned, from the past decade of telling their stories for my website’s AFAN section — Air Force, Army, Navy. That’s true for the direct admit that cycled through their academy in four years as well as players such as Cunningham that added a year to their demanding process at their respective prep school to gain admission.
And with No. 25-ranked Army (6-1) preparing to play Tulane (4-4) on Saturday in New Orleans, there is no better time to tell Cunningham’s chapter from the book of unlikely candidates than on Veteran’s Day.
“I didn’t know much about the academies,” said Cunningham, a junior second-year starting free safety from Cassett, South Carolina. “But once I got recruited and took my visit, I saw it was a family atmosphere with the closeness of the players.
“Once I got to the prep school, I met amazing people. I saw the opportunity to serve my country with these amazing people. It’s culture of hard work. The reason I stayed in has been knowing these people and the opportunity to serve with them.”
That commitment was something Stanford coach David Shaw was aware of and underscored better than other opposing civilian coaches upon bringing his Cardinal to play Army in 2013 at West Point.
“They’re willing to do what the rest of us don’t.”
The quality of players that have accepted that demanding challenge has been on the rise in recent years so that Army, Navy and Air Force are competitively balanced now more than probably anytime since the pre-Vietnam quagmire years drained the talent pool.
Army is ranked this week in the USA Today (coaches) poll, while earning 54 votes equal to No. 27 in the AP (writers) poll. Navy (3-4) and Air Force (1-2) have been up-and-down in this season altered by the COVID-19 pandemic, but both have been ranked teams in recent years.
In the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy round-robin series, Air Force last won it in 2016, Army back-to-back in 2017 and 2018 and Navy has it now from last season.
Cunningham has helped Army’s defense lead the Black Knights in a bounce-back season from last year’s 5-8 record that ended a streak of three straight bowl seasons. The 6-foot, 215-pounder is third on the team with 39 tackles, including four for a loss, two sacks, one interception and one forced fumble.
He’s taken his game up a level while shouldering the responsibility of leading a young secondary that that learned a new defensive scheme under first-year defensive coordinator Nate Woody and first-year secondary coach Greg Gasparato.
“He’s done a really good job with leadership,” Army coach Jeff Monken said. “He’s made some plays and I think he really has a great respect from the rest of the guys on the team — certainly the defense. He has been much more vocal this year than he ever has. That started even in the offseason in January and February. I’ve been really pleased with him. He’s done a nice job.”
Cunningham says he entered the season with more confidence than a year ago. He got immediate reinforcement when he forced a fumble on only the fourth play of the season opener, a 42-0 win over Middle Tennessee State at home.
MTSU took the opening kickoff and gained a first down before facing a second-and-1 at midfield. Teammate Jon Rhattigan recovered the fumble that Cunningham forced at the MTSU 43-yard line. Nine plays later Army led 7-0 on Sandon McCoy’s 1-yard touchdown run.
“Last year my eyes would get stuck in one place,” Cunningham said. “You always want to get bigger and stronger, but the one thing I focused on was going through my progressions quicker so I could play faster.
“In the Middle Tennessee State game, I saw their alignment and knew what play was coming. I was able to meet the back at the line of scrimmage and rip the ball out. I was able to focus on playing fast because I knew what was coming.”
It was a quick start that has been backed up by his consistent play. He’s had tackle totals of seven, six, six, six, nine and five while missing the Cincinnati loss in the season’s third game.
“I owe my success to my teammates that have helped me develop,” he said. “The strength coaches and, really, everyone in the program has helped me.”
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