(I've posted my article about Cal wide receiver LaReylle Cunningham that appeared in the Bears' football program for Saturday's game against Arizona State. Cunningham used his sure hands Saturday to catch three passes for 42 yards, including a sweet 19-yard score where he had to go low to grab Nate Longshore's toss. He now has 14 catches for a team-high 223 yards. He ranks first among receivers in catches and is tied for third overall, one behind tight end Cameron Morrah and running back Shane Vereen, the co-leaders.)
Former Cal quarterback Troy Taylor’s eyes are naturally drawn to any wide receiver who catches passes as if his hands were covered with Stickum.
Taylor said he spotted LaReylle Cunningham’s sure hands the first time he watched him during a training camp practice in 2005.
“I saw him catch the ball and was like, ‘Who’s that guy?’ ” said Taylor, Cal’s football radio analyst.
That guy, Taylor found out, was a walk-on from Fairfield’s Vanden High School. He came to Cal with no guarantee of ever seeing the field in a game. But those good hands helped Cunningham grab a spot on the team, earn a football scholarship last spring and win a starting job this fall as a redshirt senior.
“I’ve always had the ability to catch the ball wherever it’s thrown,” said Cunningham. “I guess it was just natural.”
Cunningham had a breakout game against Maryland three weeks ago, catching seven passes for 138 yards, both career highs. But for most of Cunningham’s career at Cal, he’s been relegated to putting on pass-catching clinics in practice. He red-shirted in 2004 then was stuck behind the talented DeSean Jackson, Lavelle Hawkins and Robert Jordan for most of the past three seasons.
The one exception came on Oct. 22, 2005, when injuries struck Cal’s receiver corps and Cunningham took center stage as an emergency starter. Cunningham caught five passes for 112 yards in a 42-38 victory over Washington State that night at Memorial Stadium. His 57-yard touchdown catch keyed Cal’s comeback win.
The next week against Oregon, however, Cunningham was back on the bench.
“If anything, it made me hungrier,” Cunningham said of his first career start.
“It made me more motivated to keep working hard, (knowing) that my number can be called at any time, and when it is, I’ll be there to make plays and do what I came to do. If my role is a backup, then I’ll just do the best I can being a backup.”
Cunningham said he had no “set in stone” football scholarship offers from any college coming out of high school. That made his decision to walk on at Cal easy.
“I just kind of had my mind set on Cal,” Cunningham said. “My mother (Adrienne Cunningham) really wanted me to come here to Cal because it’s a great university. I was able to get in through academics. It all worked out good.
“I was taught well. Always, school (came) first. Thanks to my mother. She sent me on the right path.”
Now he’s taking the final class he needs to graduate with a degree in sociology.
On the football field, Cunningham caught just 10 nine passes for 155 yards and one touchdown during his first three seasons after red-shirting.
Even so, Cal coach Jeff Tedford thought so much of Cunningham that he awarded him a scholarship last spring. With Jackson, Hawkins and Jordan no longer blocking his path, Cunningham moved up the depth chart by catching everything that came his way in spring practice and training camp.
“They’re ridiculous,” Cal linebacker Worrell Williams said of Cunningham’s hands. “If it’s in his vicinity, he’s going to catch it.”
Best hands on the team?
“Oh yeah,” Williams said. “Hands down.”
Cunningham isn’t a speed “burner,” Taylor said, but he has tremendous hand-eye coordination, body control and timing.
“He has obviously had one of the better pairs of hands on the team since he’s gotten here,” Taylor said. “Just real consistent, real smooth.”
Cunningham said he also has a knack for getting open.
“I’m good at getting my body in position to catch the ball,” Cunningham said. "I’m good at getting separation, enough needed to get the ball caught. I’m really good at body position. My routes are decent, too.”
When he played for the Bears, Hawkins liked to work over the middle, while Jackson was most dangerous on deep routes. What’s Cunningham’s preference?
“I like to work the middle, side, top, bottom,” he said. “Anywhere. Wherever the ball is, I like to work it.”
Cunningham said his favorite route is the “fade” in the end zone, where he’s able to “go up top and get it.”
“Or the post (route),” he added. “Anything, really. I just like the ball.”
As you can sense, spending the previous four years without consistently getting his hands on the football has been tough for Cunningham. But he’s persisted and persevered.
“I’ve been here a long time,” Cunningham said. “I’ve definitely been through a lot. It’s been a grind, mentally and physically. Everything’s fine. Everything turned out the way it should be. So I’m happy. I’m fortunate and blessed.”