Every day that Jermaine Cunningham takes the practice field, he knows he’s going to hear the same thing from Coach Greg Mattison over and over again. Mattison is the high priest of the Church of Technique and with all his defensive linemen, the daily sermon is “technique, technique, technique.”
“This isn’t like high school where you could get by on speed, strength or just pure talent,” said Cunningham, who has grown from a spindly, 6-4, 205 to a more solid 229 since the spring. “Coach Mattison keeps saying we gotta have technique, technique, technique and he’s right. The guy with the best technique that works hardest is the guy that gets the job done.”
The job is getting to the quarterback. Cunningham is a Gator because he was the “Nightmare on Elm Street” for every high school quarterback in the Atlanta area. In his junior and senior years combined, he sacked quarterbacks 50 times which is why he was one of the most highly recruited defensive ends in the country. Saturday, he might get his first chance to light up a Division I quarterback. He’s one of Florida’s true freshmen that will definitely see the playing field when the Gators face Southern Mississippi at The Swamp.
He came to Florida with a reputation for speed off the edge but it was obvious he needed some weight and strength. He’s worked hard in the weight room to fill out to 229 without sacrificing any of the speed. That’s a good place to start but he knows he’s got a way to go before he’s at the place where he’s comfortable.
“I’ve improved a little bit but not as much as I wanted,” he said. “I’ve still got a way to go. I think I can get up to maybe 235 sometime this year and I want to keep working gradually while I’m here to get up to something like 260 or 265. I’ll be working really hard in the offseason because I think I can be a better player when I’m close to NFL size for a DE.”
Once Florida’s summer camp began, Cunningham did a lot of listening, a lot of learning and spent a lot of hours pouring over his playbook. Knowing the playbook is important and he’s still studying it nightly to make sure he knows every little detail about his assignments, but he’s also discovered that he has to study the man he will be facing across the line of scrimmage.
“You have to take time and learn the playbook,” he said. “It’s not hard and it didn’t take a long time to learn it but I still study it because the more you know your assignments, the more it’ll be automatic for you. That’s what I’m trying to get to … where it’s automatic, where I know what I gotta do without even thinking.
“I think the hardest thing I do is studying the other guy. The speed and strength of the other players is a lot different and you’re always adjusting to that, too. Nobody is the same. Everybody is different and has different things that they do to make it tough on you. You really have to study the guy you’re going against here or you won’t make it. You can’t get by just on speed and pure talent like you did in high school. There’s a lot more mental to the game here. If you aren’t thinking, you won’t get on the field.”
He doesn’t mind it the least little bit that Mattison never lets up on his linemen in practice. Cunningham says Mattison is relentless but he’s a great teacher and motivator.
“I haven’t been around a lot of coaches, just the ones in middle school and high school until I got here, but Coach Mattison is a great coach,” he said. “You know he cares about you. He works you hard but it’s because he wants you to be better.
“That’s what I try to do every day. I try to come out here and get better. I want to improve, even if it’s just a little bit. I know Coach Mattison will be pushing me to get better, too, and he really motivates me to work hard. He is all about technique. He’s right. The guy with the best technique that works hardest wins.”
Cunningham has moved up Florida’s depth chart very quickly. He’s listed as the number two behind Jarvis Moss, who is expected to turn in an All-SEC and possibly an All-America season. Moss has transformed from a 6-6, 217-pounder that couldn’t gain weight because of a bone infection into a 260-pound every down player. Last year Moss was a pass rush specialist. Now he will stay on the field against both run and pass.
Cunningham says he learns a lot from watching Moss and that Moss is always willing to help him out.
“He’s one of the best there is,” said Cunningham. “He works hard every day in practice. He’s one of the hardest workers on the team. He’s a good guy to try to be like. If I got a question, he’ll answer it and he wants me to get better every day, too.”
When he gets his chance to line up Saturday against Southern Miss, his eyes might light up if the Golden Eagles decide to throw the football. Getting to the quarterback is not just his dream, it’s his job.
“It’s my job to get to the quarterback,” he said. “That’s what they expect me to do. That’s what they recruited me for. I’m here to come out and make plays. Getting a sack is supposed to be what happens. Just my job and that’s what I try to do.”