December 29, 2012
Tight end ready for Wolverines
South Carolina senior tight end Justice Cunningham (6-4, 264) provides a big weapon the Wolverines will try to stop. The Pageland, S.C. native proffers plenty of respect for those he's facing, though - and maintains a friendship with one of them.
Cunningham played with Michigan redshirt junior defensive tackle and South Carolina product Quinton Washington in the Shrine Bowl prep event a few years back, and the two have kept up with each other ever since.
"We're good friends," Cunningham said. "We were good friends at the Shrine Bowl, and we've stayed in touch over the years. I spoke to him day before yesterday."
Washington speaks a little differently these days. When he came to Michigan, he wouldn't even call up a sub shop for a delivery, because of a stuttering and halting speech problem from the time he was a small child.
Michigan assistant coach Jerry Montgomery would call him up to alert him about a meeting, and hear silence at the other end of the line. Montgomery recalls assuring Washington to he knew the big defensive tackle heard him, and that they'd see each other at the meeting.
Washington has received extensive help at Michigan regarding his speech, fulfilling what Cunningham and others kidded him about before Washington's departure for Ann Arbor.
"We knew he had a stuttering problem coming out of high school," Cunningham said. "We were always clowning, telling him: 'You'd better be able to talk when you come back, if you go off to Michigan to play football.'"
Cunningham is more worried about the walk than the talk come New Year's Day. Even though his team made it through the season at 10-2, with losses only at Florida and at LSU, he insists it has something to prove.
The name "Michigan" helps prove it, he offered.
"We really had big goals this year," he said. "We kind of felt we underachieved a little bit. But playing Michigan got everybody back and kind of excited about playing in the bowl game.
"Michigan is the big name in the game, Michigan has the best history, so in my mind, we're playing a great team and we have to go out there and ball out, get a win. It's a big game to make a statement. South Carolina needs more marquee wins against teams like that."
That's certainly not to say the Gamecocks are in awe of the Wolverines coming in. Several of Cunningham's teammates have already demonstrated an abundance of swagger regarding the match-up.
While Cunningham comes across as more respectful, or at least circumspect, he likes his team - and offers a cautionary note about the Gamecocks' often-overlooked offense.
"The biggest thing to look for out of our offense is a lot of speed," he said. "It's the kind of speed that's going to open your eyes up."
How that speed might be employed from game to game, nobody knows, with the exception of head coach Steve Spurrier.
"Our offense is random," Cunningham said. "We never know what's going to be called by Coach Spurrier. One game we'll come out a little conservative, and just kind of dink and dunk, and the next game keep slinging it deep. The next time, it's try to run it down their throats. It's however Coach Spurrier feels before the game is played.
"Coach Spurrier is probably one of the greatest coaches ever to coach football. I guess he just uses his gut instinct."
He does the same in dealing with players, Cunningham explained. Even at 264 pounds, the senior has to careful to avoid being cut down to size.
"Coach Spurrier is a perfectionist," Cunningham said. "I always thought I was a perfectionist growing up, but when I got here, Coach Spurrier took that to another level. I want to be perfect and get everything right, just so I don't have to hear him getting mad at me. It makes me a better player.
"He knows how to make guys feel like the smallest guy in the room if he wants to. He does it in different ways. He'll be angry and get on you, or he'll say small jokes about you and have you like, I don't want any of this guy any more. I'll just do my job."
Against a "name" program and a friend, Cunningham hopes to grow right along with his program's reputation.
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