DT, JUCO Class of 2019
Hutchinson Community College, Lithonia, GA
247: 3-star, No. 163 overall JUCO, No. 18 JUCO DT
ESPN: 3-star, No. 12 JUCO DT
Other Power 5 offers: 1 (Rutgers)
Jaden Cunningham was the second of two junior college defensive tackles signed by Virginia Tech in the 2019 recruiting class. He chose the Hokies over Rutgers and Houston, but in the end the battle never seemed particularly close.
There has been some debate about Cunningham’s true size. He’s listed at 6-1, 326 on 247Sports and the Hutchinson Community College website. However, he lists himself at 6-2, 304 on Hudl, and HokieSports.com listed him as 6-2, 304 as well.
Sources tell TSL that Cunningham is between the two listed sizes, and that he’s somewhere around 6-1.5, 315. He’ll be Virginia Tech’s biggest defensive tackle the day he sets foot on campus. Tech’s heaviest returning defensive tackle is Xavier Burke at 285, and we don’t even know if Burke will be able to play this year because of his Achilles injury. The Hokies need some more beef on the interior, and Cunningham will provide it.
That said, I have concerns about the overall impact that Cunningham can make. I think he’ll help the Hokies, and I could see him in the starting lineup, but I see as many or more weaknesses as strengths.
First, here are his highlights from his sophomore (most recent) season at Hutchinson…
Lack of numbers: Cunningham posted just five tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks against junior college competition this past season. As a comparison, fellow JUCO signee DeShawn Crawford had 15 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks. Cunningham is big, and his size is certainly welcome, but his JUCO numbers indicate that he isn’t a guy who is going to be a playmaker for the Hokies.
Lack of “highlights”: DaShawn Crawford’s highlight tape lasts just over 10 minutes. As a comparison, Cunningham’s highlight video lasts only 4:10. That makes sense, considering the numbers comparison, but it adds to my concern about Cunningham’s ability to make an impact.
Plays high: Cunningham has a tendency to play high off the snap. As soon as the ball is snapped, his first movement is up, instead of forward. That doesn’t matter as much at the JUCO level, but it’s going to matter a lot at the ACC level.
Average Twitch: I don’t think Cunningham lacks athleticism, but I don’t think he has the twitch of a Ricky Walker or a DaShawn Crawford, either.
But I also see enough good things that make me believe that Cunningham can be a productive player for the Hokies.
Strength: Despite the fact that he plays too high, Cunningham still seems to play with effective strength. That strength would be more apparent if he played lower and gained a leverage advantage over offensive linemen.
Motor: Any good Tech defensive tackle has a good motor, and Cunningham displays a willingness to run down the ball carrier outside of the tackle box.
Acceleration: I think Cunningham gets from point A to point B quickly, and has good short area burst. He’d be able to use that short area burst more often if he didn’t play so high.
Size: I think size is overrated in Virginia Tech’s defensive scheme, but when every other defensive tackle is below 290, I think having an option at 300+ pounds is important.
Bottom Line: I’ve got to go all the way back to the 2000 recruiting class to find a comparison to Jaden Cunningham. The Hokie lost most of their defensive tackles after the 1999 season, and they needed to reload in 2000. One of their solutions was to sign JUCO defensive tackle Channing Reed out of Montgomery College. Reed was a mediocre player for the Hokies, but he did eat up some reps as a junior, and to a lesser extent as a senior. I don’t think Cunningham will be a great player for the Hokies, but I do think he’ll help, and I believe he’s an upgrade over several of the defensive tackles who are already in the program. I also think that he’s an upgrade over the senior-year version of Vinny Mihota, and you’ll see why when we run our defensive line review later in the week.
ETA: 2019. I can only see one scenario in which Jaden Cunningham doesn’t help the Hokies this year. He’s still in school, and we don’t know with 100% certainty that he’ll qualify. I don’t think Tech would have taken him if they weren’t pretty sure he would qualify, however, so I see him as part of the playing rotation this season.