Arizona’s wide receiver situation may not have been its biggest offseason concern—hello, nonexistent pass rush—but it was without question an area where the Wildcats didn’t know what to expect heading into the 2019 season.
Losing the top three pass-catchers from the previous team, including one who tied the school record for touchdown receptions in a season, will do that.
Those departures meant plenty of targets were going to be available to what’s ended up being a sizable list of receivers, many of whom had never caught a pass in an FBS game. Four different Wildcats made their first career catch in the season-opening loss at Hawaii, including a wideout that wasn’t part of the team’s plans until just a few months ago.
Tayvian Cunningham, a junior college transfer from Sacramento City Community College, had four catches for 65 yards, all of which came during the fourth quarter. The last two, for 26 and 13 yards, moved Arizona from its own 30-yard line to the Hawaii 44 and made it possible for the Wildcats to have a shot to tie it at the end.
Not bad for a guy who didn’t get offered by Arizona until May 15 and didn’t show up to Tucson until early June.
“I just made the most of my opportunities,” Cunningham said Tuesday. “I still have a lot more that I haven’t shown.”
Listed at 5-foot-7 and 181 pounds, Cunningham is by far the smallest of Arizona’s receivers. But what he lacks in size he makes up for in speed. More than makes up for, in fact.
“I just bring an asset that not everybody has,” said Cunningham, who went to high school in Vacaville, Calif.
And that speed is what drew Arizona to him.
“He’s the last guy we signed, just about,” head coach Kevin Sumlin said. “He’s a track guy, which you saw (against Hawaii), he’s got that real speed. He got here right before we started (training camp). He’s continuing to get better, continuing to figure it out. He hasn’t played a lot of football. I think you can see his explosiveness, he scored six or seven touchdowns in the return game in junior college.”
Cunningham played two seasons for Sacramento City CC, hauling in 46 catches for 674 yards and two touchdowns to go with six kick-return TDs. But it wasn’t until track season in the spring that several recruiters, including Arizona linebackers coach John Rushing, made contact after learning of a football player tearing it up as a sprinter.
“Once I ran a 10.4 (in the 100-meter dash) everybody was starting to bust my phone, but nobody was pulling the trigger” on an offer, he said. Then Arizona did and he didn’t hesitate to commit, despite potential track scholarship offers from schools like UCLA where football might have been also possible.
“I was playing football either way,” Cunningham said. “Track is just something I do. Hopefully I can run track here.”
The transition from JUCO to Division I has seemed seamless for Cunningham on the field, but off it he’s still getting used to the overabundance of resources at his disposal.
“There’s food, there’s everything,” he said. “There’s trainers. Unlimited drinks. I’m not used to all this stuff.”
Though still listed third on the depth chart at slot receiver, behind Brian Casteel and Jamarye Joiner, Cunningham figures to get his chances because of his speed.
“We all just have different things that we bring to the table,” he said of his slot teammates. “They’re good at what they do, I’m good at what I do.”