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Cunningham eager to answer call

08.03.10 at 1:14 pm ET
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FOXBORO — The Patriots had needs on the depth chart that were quite apparent as the 2009-10  season came to and as players shuffled teams in the offseason. Two areas that seemed require the most urgent help were the tight end position and the pass rush.

While the team added a veteran in Alge Crumpler and highly touted prospects in Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez to shore up the tight ends, in hindsight, the same type of attention wasn’t given to improving a group of pass rushers that finished last season 23rd in the NFL.

The Patriots went after a defensive end with a knack for getting after the quarterback in Florida’s Jermaine Cunningham in the second round, a player many expected to see time in the rotation at outside linebacker with Tully Banta-Cain and the re-signed Derrick Burgess. However, with all reports indicating that Burgess has decided to retire, it may be show time for the rookie earlier than some expected. Considering he is adjusting to a new league, playbook, and position, the notion may be scary for the youngster and Patriots fans alike, but Cunningham has handled training camp well this far as he tries to fit in with the starters.

With his new position at outside linebacker thinner, it’s only natural to think that at this point Cunningham may be a rookie that sees considerable playing time early on. Some may wonder whether or not he’ll be ready for such a role, but there’s no doubt in Cunningham’s mind that he can make an impact.

“I’ve always felt like that, but it’s a long time from Game 1,” Cunningham said. “I’m just out here trying to get better.”

Cunningham, who is listed by the Patriots at a perceivably accurate height of 6-foot-3 and 260 pounds, has work to do like any other rookie. Though his process may be more complicated by having to take on the responsibilities as a stand-up pass rusher that he is not accustomed to, Cunningham doesn’t mind. After Tuesday’s walkthrough, he stayed on the field with fellow Florida product and 10-year veteran Gerard Warren working on technique.

Between the extra time he’s put in on the field and all the other factors that come with training camp, Cunningham — like any rookie should — has and continues to put a ton of time into making sure he is well-versed with his new playbook, which he described as being “about 10 times thicker” than the one he used as a Gator. He spoke enthusiastically of his studies as he gets set for his first professional season.

“That’s one thing that you’ve got to do, because if you’re not in that playbook and you just look lost, you’re going to be 10 steps behind everybody,” Cunningham said. “You’ve got to try to do the little things to try to stay up.”

So as he gears up to play football for the first time since January, does Cunningham feel like a linebacker yet? Though many would think the sooner he does, the better, the rookie feels comfortable enough just knowing he’s on the field.

“I feel like a football player,” Cunningham said, “out here on the football field just tackling the person with the football.”

Dropping into pass coverage is generally one of the bigger things to keep an eye on from players transitioning from the line to linebacker. Cunningham sees to view his development as being bigger than simply focusing on one aspect of his game.

“I wouldn’t say [it's] just only the pass drops. I’d say everything,” Cunningham said when asked what he needed to work on. “The last time I played football was January 1 and it just feels good coming back out here and just trying to get better.”

Cunningham spoke highly of his new coach in Bill Belichick, calling him “great” and pointing out that while he thought the same of Florida coach Urban Meyer, the two are certainly not the same. When it comes to learning, however, the coaches and the playbook are far from the end-all-be-all when it comes to aiding his development.

“Everybody,” Cunningham said when asked which veterans have been most helpful. “Everybody’s got something good for you. Just as being a rookie coming in, there’s always something you can take from each veteran.”

Cunningham had a career-high seven sacks as a senior at Florida last year and totaled 18 as a Gator.

Read More: Jermaine Cunningham, training camp,
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