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Back from injury, Middle Tennessee's Cunningham eyes shot at NFL


For the last 15 years, Benny Cunningham has been playing football, the primary pursuit of his life, and in a week that decade-and-a-half of athletic achievement will be distilled into a final one-hour audition, in shorts and a T-shirt, at Middle Tennessee State.

Cunningham, a deep sleeper for the 2013 NFL Draft among outsiders but someone has built a cult following among those scouts, will have one afternoon to show NFL teams he is healthy and to try to make up for a senior season cut far too short. Cunningham was on the cusp of a breakout year, his first as a feature back at Middle Tennessee State, when he tore his patella in his fifth game, and then that was it -- no bowl games, no all-star games, no combine.

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Up until that point, however, Cunningham was more or less unstoppable, and not just against small-school rivals. Ask Georgia Tech, or Florida International (which ranked a decent 36th in the nation against the run). In five games Cunningham rushed for 600 yards, averaged over six yards per carry, and had 11 touchdowns. He carved up Tech for 217 yards and five scores, and he passes the eyeball test at 5-10, 212 pounds and runs in the high 4.3 range in the 40.

So, what might have been is no longer the question. Now, from an NFL perspective, it’s down to what Cunningham can display in drills next week.

Which is why April 22 -- three days before the draft kicks off at Radio City Music Hall -- will be some important for him. Cunningham’s agent, Chad Wiestling, suspects there will be a good showing for the workout, and NFL teams have been quietly sniffing around, hoping that Cunningham could end up bring a steal on the third day of the draft similar to what Alfred Morris, from tiny Florida Atlantic, was for the Redskins a year ago.

And for Cunningham, who also lost much of his junior season to injury, it will be the opportunity of a lifetime and a challenge he is embracing now a month removed from a second procedure to heal the knee and feeling about 90-95 percent a few weeks before his workout.

"I’m really glad I have this opportunity," Cunningham said. "I thank the Lord the recovery has been going as planned and I’m just looking forward to everything that is put in front of me. Everything has been going great with my rehab, I’m still far ahead of schedule and it’s been pretty much a downhill ride since the second surgery."

Unfortunately, his college career included several hurdles. Cunningham was an all-state performer in high school in Nashville, setting several records, yet was still labeled a "two-star" recruit. He was making his claim as full-time starter as a junior when the injury struck. As a senior, the Middle Tennessee staff changed the offense to make it more run-oriented and he was shining.

The tape scouts watch the most is of him shredding Georgia Tech. Cunningham runs hard, is very physical, impresses with his pad level and was featured in some pistol concepts in college. He carried just 20 times total in the first two games of 2012, then came the 27-carry effort against Georgia Tech. He carried 14 times the following week, still scoring twice against Louisiana-Monroe, and then his college career came to an end with a 36 carry, 230 yard tour de force against Florida International, with two more touchdowns and also four catches for 55 yards.

In the four games as a senior in which he carried at least 10 times, Cunningham produced 566 yards, and 11 touchdowns (at least two in every game). He ended up second-team all-conference despite barely playing half a season, and has been waiting for his chance to showcase himself again since.

You can only imagine the pressure that must be mounting inside of him, perhaps some nerves setting in now months removed from having played a game and with so much at stake as teams want to poke and prod him. But Cunningham is relying on his work ethic and determination to carry him.

"I’m not really nervous about it," he said. "I feel like the closer to that (April 22) date the more motivated I feel to work at rehab. I feel like in most things you get out of it what you put into it, and I know what I’ve put into my rehab."

A lot of kids might wallow in their plight, if, say a fractured foot in 2011, and then the torn patella a year later deprived them of what should have been the heart of their college career (I know I would). Cunningham instead embraces the positives from each experience.

Since his surgery -- a procedure performed by the renowned Dr. James Andrews (which has put NFL teams at ease and made them optimistic about his full recovery), Cunningham opted to remain at school to rehab and continue pushing to get his degree in business management, on track to graduate in May. At a time when many draft prospects are hundreds of miles from campus, focused 100 percent on the combine and their future NFL career, Cunningham kept education as part of his recovery.

"It was a pretty tough situation and I was a little heartbroken when I got hurt," Cunningham said. "It wasn’t really me or being worried about having the opportunity to play at the next level, but the fact it was my senior season and I didn’t get to go out and play the rest of the game with the guys I’ve knows for four years and to try to help win games with them.

"But my mindset about the situation was to just make the best out of it, try to be around the guys as much as possible, be around the team and just rehab to get back to where I was."

And while there has been decidedly no media buzz around him since the injury, he has not gone unnoticed in NFL circles. He has at least one visit planned, though Wiestling was sworn to secrecy by the club and would not reveal the location, and as teams came through campus for Middle Tennessee State pro days, coaches and scouts met with Cunningham, putting him on the board to diagram plays and trying to gauge what kind of kid he is. He’s an impressive young man, with no thing close to an off-field blemish, and with savvy-scouting teams like the Giants, Packers and Patriots already among those I hear are sniffing around on him, that group only stands to grow should Cunningham perform well at his workout.

Like so many youngsters this time of year, all Cunningham is looking for is a shot, a chance to get to a training camp and prove he is more than just a number, more than a camp body. Everything is pointing to him getting that opportunity and hearing his name called in a few weeks, later rather than sooner, for sure, but called nonetheless.

He’s eager to make up for lost time.

"I really just want an opportunity to get into a camp, and I’m sure when I get the opportunity to do that that I’ll be focused," Cunningham said. "I know it doesn’t matter what round you go, or where you go. I feel like once I get to camp I’ll have the opportunity to shock a lot of people, and that’s what I want to do."

Before joining CBS Sports, Jason La Canfora was the Washington Redskins beat writer for The Washington Post for six years and served as NFL Network's insider. The Baltimore native can be seen every Sunday during the season on The NFL Today.

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