BLACKSBURG — By the time his recruitment ended in 2015, tight end Chris Cunningham had 17 scholarship offers, including one he accepted from Virginia Tech .
The Jacksonville, Florida, native had many Power 5 teams pursuing him, although Miami, wasn’t one of them. Cunningham wasn’t a big Hurricanes fan then, but something stuck with him when an assistant on then-Miami coach Al Golden’s staff visited.
“I have a real good memory of certain things, mainly recruiting, but I remember he said I was undersized because I was shorter than him,” the 6-foot-2, 241-pound Cunningham said. “They told me I wouldn’t play in the ACC or any stuff like that, so it’s sort of like a little chip on my shoulder when I play Miami.
“I’m glad they didn’t offer me because of that. They just like overlooked me, so I’m glad I’m here. I’m glad that we get to play them this Saturday.”
Not all the Floridians on the Hokies’ roster hold that kind of grudge against the ’Canes.
Virginia Tech has seven players from the Sunshine State on its roster , with four expected to travel for the No. 13 Hokies’ Coastal Division showdown with No. 9 Miami on Saturday.
They include Cunningham, starting right tackle Kyle Chung (Ponte Vedra Beach), receiver James Clark (New Smyrna Beach) and reserve defensive tackle Jarrod Hewitt (Venice).
“I know guys playing in their home state, it’s exciting,” Hokies defensive coordinator Bud Foster said. “They’re going to have a bunch of people there. And they’ll want to go and play well, and not just play well, they’ll want to play well and win. And that’s how you spell fun is W-I-N.”
Cunningham’s helped the Hokies’ cause in that regard. Although the redshirt sophomore isn’t putting up monster receiving numbers, with three of his five catches this year coming last week for 48 yards against Duke, he’s been a reliable option at the multi-faceted tight end/H-back spot, splitting time with freshman Dalton Keene.
“I feel like I’ve grown a lot mentally as far as like knowledge of the game and knowing a lot more,” said Cunningham, who’s averaging a team-best 22.6 yards per catch. “I just feel like I can help the offense out the way I have now.”
Tight ends don’t catch a ton of passes in Justin Fuente’s offense, although they chip in every now and then. Cunningham was primarily a red zone specialist last year, with four of his six receptions going for touchdowns. Last week’s three catches should boost his standing.
“I think he continues to improve,” quarterback Josh Jackson said. “He always jokes like he’s going to move over with the receivers. So his hands are getting a lot better. His grasp on the offense is doing better, and him and Dalton, I think, are a pretty good duo.”
Another pass catcher, Clark, is just returning to full strength. The grad transfer from Ohio State had dealt with a hand/thumb injury and missed the Old Dominion, Clemson and Boston College games.
Clark, a 5-foot-10, 185-pound speedster, struggled to stay healthy with the Buckeyes Held back by ankle and hamstring issues his first two years before having a minor role the last two, Clark was snakebitten.
“Yeah, that creeps up all the time,” Clark said. “It’s just a tough situation, and injuries, it’s part of the game. You don’t ask for that, but you just really have to stay positive and have faith and believe that you’re here for a reason.”
Though Clark’s contributions have been limited because of the injury. He had four catches for 64 yards this year and a 44-yard kickoff return against West Virginia in the opener, but has ceded those duties to Henri Murphy and now Travon McMillian. Still, Clark has impressed coaches with his persistence.
“He’s just worked his tail off,” Fuente said. “He hasn’t missed a practice, hasn’t missed anything, just continued to work hard and had a great attitude. There’s a lot of ways a guy could go attitude-wise in a situation like that. I’m really proud and happy that James has just continued to work.”
Clark took a circuitous route to Blacksburg, though he’s pleased he ended up here.
A football and track star at New Smyrna Beach High, the four-star prospect picked Ohio State over offers from Florida and Clemson in 2013.
Although he struggled with the Buckeyes, he thrived on the track as part of the second-fastest 400-meter relay team in school history.
Clark graduated from Ohio State with a finance degree last spring and used the graduate transfer rule to get immediate eligibility elsewhere .
That ended up being Virginia Tech after he considered going back closer to home at South Florida.
“You see a school like Virginia Tech and what they offer here, and not just as far as the football team and the offense and everything, but just as far as the campus and the people and the atmosphere — it’s very hard to turn down,” Clark said. “I’m very grateful to be here.”
Clark always considered himself a football guy first. He had 87 receptions for 1,954 yards and 29 total touchdowns in high school, with track being a secondary love. He didn’t rule out possibly of running track for the Hokies after football is over.
At the moment, though, he’s focused facing a Miami team that, unlike Cunningham, was the first to offer him a scholarship out of high school.
“They’re a great team,” Clark said, “but I’m looking forward to beating them this weekend.”