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Elite DL Cunningham Details Junior Day Visit On Rocky Top

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Tennessee only hosted a select few 2024 recruits over the weekend for their first recruiting event of 2022. One of those prospects was Peach State defender Alex "T.A." Cunningham. The 6'6", 265lbs lineman from Johns Creek High School. He details the recent trip to Rocky Top with Sports Illustrated. 

Before making it to Rocky Top, the Volunteers had already caught Cunningham's attention. 

"One of the things that kind of stood out to me about the Junior day kind of stood out before I took the visit," he said. "Coach Earnest Thomas, who helps with DL, said the junior day invites came from the higher-ups like Coach Garner and Coach Heupel. There was only a handful of 2024s there, so it was special to know I was one of the few handpicked for that and be known that I am one of their top guys, especially with this staff being new. So that is cool to see that interest level they have in me and see that interest level is mutual."

Cunningham enjoyed the trip overall, but he specifically focused on building relationships. 

"The basketball game was fun to be at. We got close seats in the recruiting section," the elite recruit said. "I spent the rest of the day talking to coaches, listening to coaches, and trying to strengthen those relationships I already have built and build new ones, too, so that was really important to me because that is an essential part of my recruitment."

Cunningham is already building a strong bond with Tennessee defensive line coach Rodney Garner. 

"All of it is a blessing," He said of being recruited by a coach like Garner, who has a prestigious track record. "Coach Garner is like the "SEC godfather." Even in my normal everyday life, I can see his impact. I have trained with people he coached, and they have nothing but good things to say about him. When you hear it from other people, it amplifies the realness of it. It's a blessing to be recruited by someone with so much experience and someone who can get to where my end goal is."

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Cunningham got the opportunity to spend one-on-one time with Garner and learn more about what he likes about him as a player and how he is outside of the game of football. 

He likes my size," Cunningham said. "A lot of coaches will joke around and say, 'you don't look 260,' just because of the way I am built and the way my weight is distributed. One of the things coach Garner and all of the other coaches like about me is that I have an 81-inch wingspan, and that is really important, especially in the draft. That conversation with him, in the picture I posted, we weren't even talking about football. It is a relationship-building process, and that is the name of the game. I think we were talking about hunting, which was cool. 

Cunningham noted that he doesn't hunt, but Garner, who does, was telling him about his experiences with it. The face time with the defensive line guru allowed the elite prospect the chance to see how he really is outside of the game. 

"He is a good person," Cunningham said of what he was able to learn from Garner. "He is a really genuine person, and I like those kinds of people. You will see a lot of coaches that do all of this stuff for the cameras, but that is not how they are off the field. I feel like that is how he is all the time. He has all daughters, and when he's on the field, he treats his players like his own sons, so that's something I value a lot and find important."

As a top ten recruit nationally, Cunningham's offer list frequently keeps growing, and although coaches cannot initiate contact with him, he has felt like a priority to several, who have stopped in to check on him through his high school coaches. 

"There is a lot," Cunningham said of this. "Last week, I had eight different people come by the school to check in on me through my coaches. The ones I have initiated contact with are, obviously, the home state, Georgia; I have been communicating with them. Coach Smart stopped by in the helicopter four days off of a national championship win to check on me through my coaches, so that was special to me. I keep a good relationship with Penn State, and Coach Franklin came by the school to check up on me through my coaches. Then, of course, Coach Garner, it is just building relationships with them. They are real, genuine people, and I value that as something that could put somebody high on the list. That is not to say any of these schools are a lock because I know a lot can change with all of these coaches moving, but I just want coaches to know how important building these relationships are for more."

While Cunningham still has plenty of time to make a decision, and he is in no hurry, he does have a plan, for navigating the process. 

"My father handles a lot of my recruitment, if not most of it, but we have a list of criteria," he said of this. "We think about my playing potential. Obviously, not every school you are not going to be able to come in and start as a freshman, but I want to be able to make an impact, even if it's on the practice field. A lot of people don't think about this, but we look at endowment, alumni, and a lot of stuff because in the new age of NIL, you have to think about this stuff. My dad is a pastor, so we look at the churches in the area, the history of all of that. We look at the strength and conditioning, who has played there and made it to the NFL, we look at all of that."