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Saturday, January 22, 2022

It's one of those stat lines that make early-morning risers spit out their coffee when scanning newspaper box scores.

UF No. 49 Cunningham, J., 17 tackles.

One of the positives that came out of the 28-24 loss at top-ranked LSU was the continued emergence of sophomore defensive end Jermaine Cunningham.

Yet Cunningham, coming off the best game of his career, declined interview requests three days later.

BJermaine doesn?t talk that much,C said Ron Gartrell, Cunningham?s coach at Stone Mountain (Ga.) Stephenson High. BHe?s a little bit shy.C

He certainly didn?t look timid Saturday.

He added two pass breakups and nearly doubled his tackling output for the entire season, giving him 36 stops in six games in his first year as a starter.

His teammates reacted with a wow as the stats accumulated.

BThat?s what everybody was saying, they were like, 'Cunningham is in the right spot in the right time,?C cornerback Joe Haden said.

Cunningham led a trend of emerging youngsters on a defense that returned just two starters.

He is a speedy 6-foot-3, 229-pound pass rusher who has gained strength to complement his inherent quickness since arriving on campus.

His used both attributes to make his biggest play of the season two weeks ago at Mississippi.

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On a fake punt attempt, he sped to the sideline and delivered a key open-field tackle late in the fourth quarter.

He followed that up with five tackles, 1.5 for loss, against Auburn and his out-of-this-world performance at LSU.

The 17 tackles were the most since Channing Crowder?s 18 against Mississippi State in 2004.

UF coach Urban Meyer attributed Cunningham?s development to - what else? - good coaching.

B(Co-defensive coordinator Greg) Mattison has a lot of confidence when he?s all over the field,C Meyer said. BI?ve never heard of a defensive end with 17 tackles. He?s getting better.C

With the exodus of junior Jarvis Moss and senior Ray McDonald to the NFL at the end of last season, a huge hole opened opposite Derrick Harvey at the No. 2 end position.

Sure, Cunningham had a good shot at filling the spot.

But some thought redshirt freshman Lawrence Marsh would step up.

Others pointed to incoming freshmen studs Carlos Dunlap, Justin Trattou and Duke Lemmens.

And with UF?s revolving-door use of defensive tackles in recent years, it was feasible that everybody would join a committee.

Cunningham, who recorded two tackles in seven games in 2006, spent spring practice distancing himself from the others.

He learned by following Harvey?s example.

BEvery day, ever since the spring, I looked up to him, and he probably doesn?t even know,C Cunningham said following the win at Mississippi.

Harvey witnessed Cunningham?s quick improvement.

BHe wanted to get better,C Harvey said. BThat?s what he?s doing now.C

It?s exciting to look at what the future holds for Cunningham.

He appears primed to join a growing list of great UF pass rushers, including Jevon Kearse, Alex Brown, McDonald, Moss and Harvey.

BI always tell people he?s going to end up as a first-round draft pick,C Gartrell said. BI said it before he signed with Florida. He has a knack of what you?re looking for as a defensive end.C

As Cunningham continues to progress on the field, he has to learn to adapt to the growing attention he gets off the field, Gartrell said.

That includes interviews.

BI don?t know why he declined the interview, maybe he just didn?t know how to handle it yet,C Gartrell said. BIf you play in the spotlight, there are things that you have to do. People want to know who you are.C

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