From the beginning of preseason football in 2021 to Wednesday’s first practice, Middle Tennessee State quarterback Chase Cunningham has been on quite the roller coaster ride.
He began last season competing with highly touted Power 5 transfer Bailey Hockman, who ultimately won the job.
When Hockman quit the team after three games, Cunningham took over and performed admirably in his five starts, sparking the MTSU offense.
Then, in early November, he tore the ACL in his right knee, once again giving up a position he had fought hard for during his four years with the Blue Raiders.
Cunningham was back on the field Wednesday, again competing for a starting position. But now he’s healthy and has the experience from last year.
“I’m good to go … I’m 100% and ready to roll,” said the 5-foot-11, 188-pound Cunningham, a redshirt senior who prepped at Knox Catholic. “I was feeling good today.”
A storm cut the first practice short by about 45 minutes, but that didn’t take away from Cunningham’s return after being out nine months.
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“I’m happy for Chase,” coach Rick Stockstill said. “Anytime you have an injury of that magnitude, there’s always a little doubt in your mind when you get out there and do it. But he wasn’t favoring it or anything. He threw some nice balls in individual (drills).
“Chase brings a lot of leadership to the team. The team respects him. I’m glad he’s healthy and able to play his last year of college ball.”
MTSU, which went 7-6 last year and defeated Toledo in the Bahamas Bowl, opens the season Sept. 3 at James Madison.
Cunningham’s road back form the injury impressed first-year quarterbacks coach Brent Stockstill, regarded as the greatest QB to play the position at MTSU.
“With what he had to go through last year, I’m super proud of him,” Brent Stockstill said. “It’s never easy. It’s not just the ACL. He had a lot more that he had to come back from and battle.
“The whole (QB) room and the whole team has been behind him this whole time through his rehab process. But he looks really good out there. He had a good summer and worked his tail off.”
Cunningham completed 101-of-176 passes for 1,318 yards and 16 touchdowns with only three interceptions last season before the injury. He also had 118 rushing yards.”
His breakout game came against eventual Conference USA champion UTSA, where he threw for 150 yards and two scores in the second half after Hockman was benched. He became the starter after that.
A healthy Cunningham is the favorite to win the starting job, but like last season, there will be a legitimate competition. Sophomore Nick Vattiato, who stepped in after the injury last season and started the final five games, is also vying for the position.
“(Quarterback depth) is awesome,” Cunningham said. “(Vattiato) is the man. It’s great to compete with him and do everything with those guys. We’re all going to work out butts off. We have a great room.”
The 6-1, 187-pound Vattiato completed 115-of-171 for 1,047 yards and seven touchdowns last season.
“These two guys are absolutely phenomenal,” Brent Stockstill said. “I’m so proud of the way they approached (the competition). I told them to just go play and don’t try to do too much.
“At the end of the day we have to find a guy, but whoever it is, I guarantee the other will be his biggest fan.”
Staying healthy is the most important thing for Cunningham. Beyond that his goals for 2022 are simple.
“I just want to win,” Cunningham said.
Reach Cecil Joyce at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-278-5168 and on Twitter @Cecil_Joyce.