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Cardinals’ Korey Cunningham hopes to buck seventh-round odds

Cincinnati quarterback Hayden Moore (8) huddles with offensive lineman Korey Cunningham (71) and offensive lineman Keith Minor (54). (AP Photo/Tony Ding)

The chances of a seventh-round draft pick carving out a lengthy or even significant existence in the NFL are slim.

Of the 13 players the Arizona Cardinals have selected in the seventh round over the past 15 years, none is currently with an NFL team and only three (Jim Dray, LaRod Stephens-Howling and Ben Patrick) played at least 32 NFL games, the equivalent of two seasons.

Cincinnati tackle Korey Cunningham (No. 254 overall) hopes to buck those odds when he reports to the Cardinals rookie mini-camp at the team’s Tempe headquarters from Friday to Sunday. There are some advantages working in Cunningham’s favor.

“When you see him, [he has] a massive frame, 6-6, 311 pounds, and I’m not sure I’ve seen many guys test like this,” Cardinals general manager Steve Keim said. “He ran 4.90 (in the 40), jumped 36 inches at that size, which again, is off the charts. I haven’t seen many guys, particularly offensive tackles, vertical jump 36 inches. He’s a former basketball player, and we think he has loads of upside.”

Cunningham’s road to the NFL took several turns out of Montevallo, Alabama (population: 6,723). His first college offer came from Auburn, the school for which he grew up rooting, but when the Tigers terminated coach Gene Chizik’s contract after the 2012 season, new coach Gus Malzahn wasn’t interested in Cunningham so the recruit committed to Alabama-Birmingham.

When assistant coach Tyson Helton, the brother of USC head coach Clay Helton, left UAB to coach at Cincinnati, he convinced Cunningham to visit the school and coach Tommy Tuberville. Cunningham committed shortly thereafter.

“I hated it at first,” he said, laughing. “I hated the cold weather. It was just a big culture change coming from a small town here in Alabama. I wanted to come home and I told myself I was going to leave, but after a year or so, I ended up falling in love with that place.”

Cunningham was “a 220-pound, skinny old drop-of-water” tight end when he arrived at Cincinnati. One day in the locker room, he was messing around with the offensive linemen amongst whom his locker had been placed.

“I was trying to get into a tackle stance and the O-line coach at the time, Darren Hiller, walked past and he was like, ‘wait, do that again,’” Cunningham said. “I did it again and all the offensive linemen were like, ‘welcome to the offensive line.’”

In addition to tight end, Cunningham was also playing defensive end before the switch. He struggled with the new concepts.

“I had trouble getting out of my stance in pass protection,” he said. “I was used to my first steps going forward. Now my first steps were going backward and somebody was running at you.

“This walk-on kid who hardly ever played made look me bad all the time. It was kind of embarrassing at first. I had to learn to trust myself but once I did, it was on from there. I got some confidence behind me. The end of my redshirt sophomore year, I was like ‘I got this. I can do this.’”

By the time he reached his senior season, Cunningham said he had a chip on his shoulder and a lofty goal to close out his college career. He wasn’t going to allow a sack all season. According to Pro Football Focus, he set the national pace in that regard.

That wasn’t his only strength.

“One of the plays that he really excelled at was we ran a little screen to our running back where he would give a quick pass set and then get out in front of the running back and lead him,” said Bearcats offensive line coach Ron Crook. “I think he had three or four knockdowns on that play which really showcased his athleticism to get out on the edge, and the toughness to go attack the guy and get knockdowns. “

Offensive linemen can face a difficult transition to the NFL because of the prevalence of spread offenses in college, but Crook said the Bearcats offense may work in Cunningham’s favor.

“Our tackles at least get down in a three-point stance – not 100 percent of the time – but we do get to see that, and run zone schemes and gap schemes and do a few different things where we’re not the typical spread offense that has four or five wideouts on the field every play,” he said. “We lined up and we played physical and tried to get after people. I’m sure those are things they saw that hopefully give him a better chance to transition.”

Cunningham said he just wants to be “a sponge” and soak up everything his coaches and teammates have to teach him his first NFL season. In return, Crook said the Cardinals are gaining a player who was voted a team captain, who started 24 consecutive games at left tackle, and who brought a lighthearted and vocal approach to the locker room and field.

An avid hunter and fisherman, Cunningham once ate nine lobsters at the American Athletic Conference Media Day. He liked to take his Bearcats teammates fishing at a pond near a teammate’s house, and he accepted and lost a burrito eating challenge with a local television personality.

“I’m a big Chipotle fan,” Cunningham said. “I ate there every day and somehow she found out about it and wanted to challenge me to a burrito eating contest. I’m not going to lie. I did not think she was going to eat a burrito that fast. She even got the type of burrito that I eat. Next thing you know, she scarfed it down. I was like, ‘that did not just happen.’ I was halfway done. Trust me, I did not go easy on her. She definitely gave me that work.”

Cunningham can also dish out that work. He liked to employ a time-honored prank with his city-raised teammates by taking them snipe hunting.

“They’re like, ‘what’s a snipe?’” Cunningham said. “I tell them it’s this bird that only comes out at night and comes toward the light. You have to hold a plastic bag on the ground and hold a light over the bag and the bird will fly into it.

“You tell them you’re going to go a few yards away and make some noise so the bird will fly toward the light and you end up just leaving your friend out there in the woods for a long time. We took our starting center deep into the woods and we just left him out there for about an hour, scared out of his mind and going crazy.”

Crook knows Cunningham’s task is tall, but he sees potential in his versatility. The Cardinals could certainly use some depth along their offensive line.

“I think he is big enough and powerful enough that he can play inside, and he’s long enough and athletic enough that he can play on the edge at tackle,” Crook said. “Any time you’re talking about an offensive lineman, the lower they can play in terms of pad level, the better they will be. That will be an emphasis for him, getting in shape to allow himself to play with low pad level for a longer period of time, but he’s going in with the idea that he is going to play.

“He’s intelligent, he’s a very hard worker, he’s extremely concerned about his teammates, and he’s very selfless in everything he does. Those are things that will serve him well.”