Benny Cunningham has a hard time saying no. That is a great problem for Middle Tennessee State football coach Rick Stockstill.
Not only does he have a starting running back in Cunningham but the Goodpasture grad also doubles as a special teams maven. Last year, he led the Blue Raiders in special teams tackles, returned kicks and contributed on punt and field goal protection. He often was asked to serve as a blocker in passing situations as well.
“Those are the ones that make this job a lot easier,” Stockstill said. “Benny is a good football player and I don’t mean that as a good running back. He is a good football player. He loves football. He could start at corner. He could possibly play at linebacker. He is just a good football player.
“He never takes a play off. He is fundamentally sound. He takes pride in his work. He is an excellent leader for us.”
Those responsibilities could be scaled back this season as the Blue Raiders are just two weeks from their season opener Sept. 1 at Purdue. Stockstill said Cunningham will remain on kickoff returns and assume the starting responsibilities at running back.
Cunningham sounds willing to do more than that.
“Coach Stockstill always says selfish players just play offense and defense,” Cunningham said. “I feel like I can help the team out on special teams by being the utility guy, kind of picking up wherever they need to put me. I feel like if there is any place I can help the team out I am going to be willing to play it.
“I look forward to playing special teams. I feel like that separates me from everyone else.”
Cunningham, a junior, has patiently waited for more carries as quarterback Dwight Dasher rushed for more than 1,000 yards in 2009 and running back Phillip Tanner followed with a 928-yard performance last season. Both were seniors a year ago.
His running mate, redshirt senior D.D. Kyles, rushed for 857 yards two years ago but has been hampered by a hamstring injury so far in preseason camp.
Over the last two seasons, the 5-foot-10, 210-pound Cunningham has rushed for 528 yards on 124 carries in a running back-by-committee system.
This year he could be the featured back. His teammates say he is more than ready for the role.
“He is one of the hungriest backs I’ve played with,” redshirt junior offensive lineman Alex Stuart said. “That is the thing about him, he is elusive when he wants to be and he’ll run through you when he wants to. Phillip was a hell of a running back. And [Dwight] was a heck of a running back. But there is something different about Benny, man. He brings something else to the table. I can’t quite put my finger on it but he does.”
Cunningham enjoyed a successful high school career at Goodpasture, where he set six school records. He also was named the state’s Mr. Football in 2008.
His role in high school was nearly identical to the multi-faceted one he has enjoyed at MTSU – chipping in on every special teams group while totaling 4,611 yards and 60 touchdowns.
“It is kind of just picking up where I left off,” he said.
As for where the eagerness to pile on responsibility came from, Cunningham laughed and said, “it kind of got forced upon me.”
“Now it is just something I have grown into, learned to adapt to and embrace it,” he said.
“That is what makes him such a great guy because he doesn’t ask out of it,” Stuart said. “He is always willing to go above and beyond. He is the type of running back that pats you on the butt. He gives linemen praise every play even if it is a bad play. That is the type of guy he is.”
And now he can add starting running back to the resume.
“I have been on edge about it,” Cunningham said. “I have been waiting for my turn. I have been looking forward to this season.”