Cunningham eyes 2d season

Patriot talks to aspiring players

By Shalise Manza Young
Globe Staff / June 12, 2011

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BenJarvus Green-Ellis flew in an F-16 with the Air Force Thunderbirds, Ty Warren earned his college degree, Jonathan Wilhite got married, and Brandon Meriweather released a rap song.

But Jermaine Cunningham hasn’t done anything exotic or notable since his rookie season with the Patriots ended.

“The strangest thing I’ve done . . . is probably a bunch of sprints,’’ he said yesterday.

The linebacker was the guest speaker at Madison Park High School for the Patriots’ Alumni Club’s “Football for You’’ camp, the second of four such events for aspiring players.

A second-round draft pick out of Florida last year, Cunningham was converted from college defensive end to outside linebacker in the Patriots’ system. He was slowed by injury in training camp, and a calf injury limited him late in the season.

But Cunningham had his moments, most notably against Baltimore, when he stripped quarterback Joe Flacco during a sack and dropped slippery back Ray Rice for a 3-yard loss.

In all, he had 34 tackles in 15 games (11 starts).

Not surprisingly, the soft-spoken Cunningham wants more this year.

“I feel like I can always get better, so this season coming up, just go out there, try to get better. That’s why I’m working so hard this offseason, just to get better, you know, be a better player next year,’’ he said.

Rather than return to his Georgia hometown of Stone Mountain, Cunningham has mostly been in Massachusetts, working out and getting ready for his second season.

“This is where I’m going to be playing; if it wasn’t for the lockout this is where I’d be,’’ Cunningham said, explaining why he remained close to the Patriots’ facility. “I’m just trying to treat it like a regular season, be ready for when the season does come.’’

Bill Belichick has frequently noted that a player’s biggest jump in improvement is typically from his first year to his second. But for Cunningham, Devin McCourty, and the rest of the 2010 rookies, the lockout could stunt that growth.

They haven’t been in the Gillette Stadium weight room and film rooms, interacting with their coaches, or had the usual mini-camps to learn from their rookie mistakes.

Cunningham knows missing out on those experiences could affect him, but he’s taking steps to minimize that.

“If it wasn’t a lockout, we’d be working with the team, watching film, building that chemistry and all that,’’ he said. “But it’s not like that right now, so you just have to take advantage of your time and do what you can to get better. That’s why I’m up here now.’’

He has plenty of film to study, and has been looking at not only how he can improve, but also the Patriots’ defense as a whole.

His goal this season is to be more dominant — “somebody out there on the field you have to worry about,’’ he said.

It was important to Cunningham to talk to the kids at the event yesterday, because he remembers going to similar events as a kid, seeing Takeo Spikes give his time and impart some wisdom on youngsters who hoped to follow in his footsteps.

“I was in those same shoes,’’ he said. “Any time a pro athlete or college athlete came to talk to you, it was good — really good.

“I’m trying to branch off and help the kids out. It’s where I came from. It’s always a blessing having someone above you that you look up to come and talk to you.’’

Shalise Manza Young can be reached at

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