Cunningham making noise on UF defense

Published: Sunday, November 1, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, November 2, 2009 at 12:43 a.m.

JACKSONVILLE — Jermaine Cunningham’s heard it all this season.

He’s been sluggish. He hasn’t been as involved this season.

He’s been slowed by injuries. He just hasn’t been the same player people are accustomed to seeing on Florida’s defensive line.

As a senior, Cunningham knows when he hasn’t performed like he should. Through the first half of the season, Cunningham admits to being almost a non-factor at defensive end.

But in the last three weeks, something’s changed. Cunningham’s registered at least one sack a game, totaling four with 13 tackles.

He had two major sacks against Arkansas, but Saturday against Georgia, Cunningham had what he called one of his best of the season.

He came off the left edge practically unblocked by UGA lineman Josh Davis and slammed into an unprepared Joe Cox, knocking the ball loose for a 9-yard loss with little more than a minute remaining in the first half.

Cunningham said it wasn’t what he did physically on the play that helped him. It was his mental anguish that pushed him.

Almost 11 minutes earlier, frustration took hold of Cunningham as he pushed a Georgia player over well after a play was finished, resulting in a 15-yard penalty.

“I got a penalty — a personal foul penalty — and the coaches were all down my throat,” Cunningham said.

“I did something wrong, messed with my team and I felt like I had to turn it right by making a play.”

Cunningham’s play certainly fueled his team. The Gators’ forced a three-and-out and headed into the locker room with a comfortable 24-10 lead. Florida’s defense then held the Bulldogs to just one more score before taking home the 41-17 victory.

Redshirt senior linebacker Ryan Stamper said he’s seen more motivation, more fire in the eyes of his teammate. Stamper said the energy in the way Cunningham is playing these last few weeks has been dramatically different than when he began the season slowed by a couple of nagging injuries.

“Cunningham, he’s one of the best pass rushers in the SEC, one of the best pass rushers on our team,” Stamper said. “He was just coming out as a senior for Florida-Georgia. He’s from Georgia, so I think that gave him a lot of motivation to come out and play hard.”

The Stone Mountain, Ga., native definitely played hard Saturday, finishing the day with four total tackles, including 2.5 for a loss. With his recent performances, Cunningham now has 23 tackles and five sacks on the season.

Usually a quiet guy with the media, Cunningham downplayed his success on the Jacksonville turf, but made it clear that his early play was unacceptable and he understands that for this team to accomplish all its goals this season, he’s got to continue his progression.

Cunningham was irked at being called out, but it’s stimulated him on the field.

As the season begins drawing to a close, Cunningham said he’s far from peaking and hopes to build off his latest performances.

“I have a lot of people saying I haven’t been producing — haven’t been doing this, haven’t been doing that,” he said. “Everything I take as motivation. I did start off kind of slow, but it’s coming down to the end of the season and this is when good teams step up and feel like I have to do something to help my team out and be more productive.”

Next up for Florida is Saturday’s game against Vanderbilt.

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