Cunningham Taking Advantage of Opportunity

Posted Nov 30, 2013

Three months ago, Benny Cunningham was fighting for an NFL job. Positioned on the periphery of the Rams’ depth chart, Cunningham was one of the final players to secure a spot on the 53-man roster.

“When they told me I had the chance to compete, that’s really all I wanted to hear,” Cunningham said. “I feel like there is always room for improvement, and I look to do something to give my teammates confidence that I can help.”

There has been no shortage of confidence in Cunningham recently, particularly within the Rams’ locker room.

As the team’s fourth running back at the outset of the season, perhaps Cunningham’s greatest asset was his ability to contribute on special teams, as he opened the year as the Rams’ primary kick returner. That role has increased rapidly in recent weeks. Cunningham rushed for 72 yards on just seven carries in the Rams’ 38-8 win over Indianapolis in Week 10, including a career-long carry of 56 yards. That performance set him up for last week’s showing, as he took over following an injury to RB Zac Stacy at the conclusion of the first half.

With Stacy sidelined for the second half of Sunday’s 42-21 win over the Chicago Bears, Cunningham and his 5’10”, 217-pound frame presented a very similar running style to the Rams’ current feature back, and also yielded similar results. Cunningham carried 13 times for a career-best 109 yards and his first NFL touchdown during Stacy’s absence.

While Cunningham’s swift rise up the Rams’ running back depth chart may have caught some by surprise, the opportunity to contribute quickly played a key role in Cunningham’s decision to sign with St. Louis.

Cunningham’s ascension is particularly notable when considering he entered this year as an undrafted rookie free agent out of Middle Tennessee State. The more circuitous route to the NFL was likely partially due to the fact that Cunningham missed a portion of his senior year at Middle Tennessee with a ruptured patella tendon, though his talent while on the field was easily identifiable. In his final collegiate game, he rushed for a career-high 230 yards on 36 carries.

“It was just all a result of draft study,” Head Coach Jeff Fisher said of his prior familiarity with Cunningham. “We were watching early games against different opponents and he kept popping up.”

His name popped up enough among the Rams’ coaching and scouting staff to bring him in as a low-risk acquisition for training camp, a move that has paid off handsomely in recent weeks. Despite his undrafted status, Cunningham has shown through his swift learning curve at the NFL level that his collegiate production was no fluke.

“Sometimes, guys slip through the cracks,” QB Kellen Clemens said. “When you look at what he was able to do on Sunday, what he’s done over the course over the year, certainly he’s a talent that probably deserved to be drafted. But, we’re glad to have him. I could care less whether he was undrafted, whether he was a first-round pick. It’s a production-based league and, as of right now, when he’s had opportunities he’s produced. So, we have a lot of confidence in him and we’ll go forward with him if he’s the guy that’s back that there.”