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October 24, 2013Arizona four star Qualen Cunningham was one of the best defensive ends at the Rivals.com Five Star Challenge this past summer working against some of the country's top offensive tackles. At the camp, Cunningham displayed the ability to really bend his hips and knees and get low coming out of his stance like a sprinter. As a result, not only is his first step is lightning quick but he can accelerate through it and onto the quarterback. He doesn't have a big frame but it didn't matter because of that first step combined with hands that never let a blocker get into him. He was also agile enough that he can step one way and then execute a move back the other and leave a lineman unable to even hold him.
A lot of rush end prospects can work over offensive linemen in camps because in T-shirts and shorts there's no cloth for them to grab onto. However, Cunningham is equally effective playing in pads because he is so capable with his hands. This is exemplified on the first play of his 2013 Hudl film where he comes off the edge on a rollout to his side. He goes upfield against a H back and has his hands into the blocker before he can get his hands up or even set up to take him on. When the quarterback continues outside, Cunningham uses a spin move to get around the H back and accelerates to the quarterback. He basically lays him out as he delivers the ball and the result is an incompletion.
On the second play, he's facing a bigger offensive linemen and he's off at the snap and into the lineman before he can get set up. He gets his hands up into the lineman's chest and pushes him backwards to the quarterback. The quarterback tries a pass over him but Cunningham gets his hands off the lineman and back up in the air to deflect the pass, catch it, and run it in for a touchdown.
In addition, Cunnngham's father Rick not only played at Texas A&M with Aggie defensive line coach Terry Price but he also played in the NFL as well. As a result, Cunningham is extremely well schooled in technique. On another play, he takes a step upfield to draw the lineman's balance to his outside shoulder and then in another step he darts inside on an unimpeded path to the quarterback.
Cunningham isn't just an effective pass rusher, however. In a clip of a short yardage situation, he's standing up opposite a tight end. He wins pad level by getting lower than the blocker even though he is in a two point stance and gets his hands up and stalemates the blocker before he can get out of his stance. He pushes off the blocker, disengages, and makes the tackle before the back going to that side can get around the end for the first down. In another clip, the offense runs counter trey to the right side out of an I formation. He's at right defensive end and the offensive tackle and guard on his side pull to the right. He follows the pulling linemen, sees the play develop, and takes an angle that results in him hitting the back just after he takes a counter step and gets the ball.
Overall, due to his frame, Cunningham is definitely a weak side guy but you're not going to find too many prospects with his athleticism, technique, and ability to play the run as well as the pass. The closest physical comparison that you can make is former A&M star Von Miller (now with the Denver Broncos) Miller played some as a pass rushing specialist as a freshman but by his junior campaign, Miller had learned enough technique to be a full time stand up end and recorded 17 sacks. Cunningham will need a similar amount of time in the weight room before he reaches his potential as a player. However, he is already ahead of Miller in playing both the run and rushing the passer at that stage of his career and like Miller he possesses the physical tools to play as a freshman for a program that is in dire need of edge rushers.
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