University of Tennessee junior punter Chad Cunningham got home for the holidays a day earlier and with his pockets a little fuller.
After three weeks of intense practice leading up to the Vols’ Dec. 31 showdown with Virginia Tech in the Chick-fil-A Bowl at the Georgia Dome, first-year Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin gave his team an early Christmas present by canceling last Tuesday’s practice.
“We got to go home a day early,” said Cunningham, who was a standout quarterback, kicker and punter for Dawson County High School. “It’s great because [I] get more time with my family and friends and because we got a couple of our bowl gifts earlier than we were originally going to.”
Each college team that made a bowl game this year received gifts from the bowl, and as a result, Cunningham returned home with $600 in Best Buy gift cards [$250 from the bowl and $350 from the University of Tennessee], Chick-fil-A gift cards and a watch.
“[The gifts] are great,” Cunningham said. “They are an extra benefit from working hard all season.”
In high school, Cunningham made a name for himself as a kicker and quarterback.
He was an all-state performer in 2005 and was twice named to The Times All-Area football team.
He averaged 45 and 41 yards respectively in his junior and senior seasons for the Tigers and made 60-of-65 point after attempts as a junior.
From his quarterback position, Cunningham threw for more than 4,100 yards and accounted for 40 touchdowns.
This year, as the Vols’ starting punter and kicker, Cunningham had his best season, averaging a career-best 42 yards per attempt in 49 attempts along with a career-best long punt of 58 yards,.
He also averaged 60.4 yards per kickoff in 68 tries.
And he did it all under new leadership, as Kiffin took over for Phillip Fulmer, who was the Vols coach for 16 years, as well as the man who recruited Cunningham.
“[Kiffin’s] a great coach,” said Cunningham, whose father Rory Cunningham was an offensive guard for the Vols in the early ’80s. “He’s a player’s coach and a great recruiter.
“I like the way he conducts practices; it’s very professional and he treats us like we’re professionals.”
Cunningham noted that the practices between the Vols last regular season game — a 30-24 win against Kentucky — weren’t that different than the rest of the season, with the exception of there being a greater emphasis on conditioning.
“With four weeks off between games, it’s important to stay in game shape,” Cunningham said. “Basically, we prepared like we were about to play our first game of the season.”
As an added bonus to end the season, Cunningham will get to play in his home state for only the third time in his career.
“For me being from Georgia, this bowl game is special because I’m getting to play in front of family and friends,” Cunningham said. “I’ve gotten 20 tickets for people so far.”
The atmosphere that will accompany the Vols and Hokies won’t be different for Cunningham, at least not this year.
“My first year it was something else to be playing at Neyland Stadium in front of 100,000 people compared to the 500 I played in front of at Dawson County,” Cunningham said. “I don’t think about it much now though.”
With one more season to play, Cunningham’s goal is the NFL.
“I would love to play at the next level,” he said. “I am going to have to work extremely hard this spring and summer and hope to get a few tryouts.
“Just the chance to have a chance to play would be great though.”