Minot State QB Zac Cunha aims to fulfill childhood dream

Minot State QB Zac Cunha aims to fulfill childhood dream

Photo: Minot State’s all-time leader in passing yards Zac Cunha (16) attempts a pass against Minnesota State University-Moorhead. (photo courtesy of Sean Arbuat)

MSU’s all-time leader in passing yards reminisces on career, awaits the destination of his future

The journey to the NFL is often a road that is never flat, nor one with a clear destination. Those who have had faceoffs with adversity have shown to be more mentally and emotionally tested for the grueling assault on the confidence and more importantly, the time commitment that will be sustained through the process.

In terms of players who have faced a multitude of situations on the field that called for them to “rise to the challenge,” Minot State University quarterback Zac Cunha may take the cake.

A program just years removed from making its inaugural appearance against Division II competition, the Rocklin, Calif. native left his legacy at Minot State as the school’s all-time leader in pass attempts (1,312), completions (687) and passing yards (8,222) and finished just a score away (52) of tying the school’s all-time record for touchdown passes. However, it’s a mark that almost never happened.

Photo courtesy of Sean Arbaut

In back-to-back seasons, the 6-foot-3, 230-pound signal caller saw his season cut short. In the 2015 season opener against Southwest Minnesota State, Cunha broke his collarbone after an attempt, forcing him to use a medical redshirt. Though he managed to battle back, in Week 2 of the 2016 season he suffered an even more devastating setback, tearing his ACL and MCL in his left knee against Wayne State.

“I initially thought my career was over, noted Cunha via telephone Sunday evening. “I didn’t think I could get another medical and I was disappointed because I felt like I was really playing well and it just got cut short.”

Luckily, he was able to petition the NSIC Conference and the NCAA to receive a sixth-year of eligibility due to sustaining what he described as clear-cut injuries that cut his seasons short. Cunha noted that when he was aware of having the ability to petition the conference, the school’s compliance director, Steve Swenson, was the one help guide the process along. The good news for Cunha was that he was granted a sixth-year. Now came the tough part, battling back once again to be ready to play come September. He stated that when measured up against his injuries, it wasn’t the fact that he was hurt and unable to play that was the toughest, but rather not being able to be there in general.

“It was tough to deal with working in the background, “he added. “You’re not on the field with the guys. You’re not able to practice. You’re not getting reps. That was tough for me to take a step back and not be the leader on the field.”

Six years, four coaching changes

As if having to battle back from injuries wasn’t enough adversity, Cunha also had to deal with a downright bizarre string of coaching changes. When the highly-anticipated signal caller arrived on campus, the head coach at the time was Minot State alum Paul Rudolph. Rudolph coached the Beavers for seven seasons, to include Cunha’s first two years on campus before joining the University of North Dakota football staff as the offensive coordinator. He is now entering his fourth season with the FCS program. Cunha noted that he really enjoyed playing under Rudolph while he was still at the helm for the Beavers and that his departure was one that he hoped for nothing but success for him.

“In a perfect world, I would have played four years for Paul Rudolph, but things aren’t perfect,” he stated.

After a brief coaching search, it was decided that the school would hire former Minnesota State-Mankato Head Coach Todd Hoffner, who was wrongfully terminated from his position with reasons why being undisclosed during that time.  Hoffner was escorted off the practice field in August 2012, then arrested and charged with child pornography after university staff found images of his naked children on a work-issued cell phone. The charges were later dropped. When an arbitrator ruled in favor of Hoffner being wrongfully terminated, he returned to the helm as the Mavericks head coach, where he is still today being Minot State’s head coach for just under three months. The program quickly hired Tyler Hughes, a high-energy coach who saw success at Snow College, a JUCO program in Utah. He would coach two seasons for the Beavers, stepping down prior to the 2017 season.

Cunha’s final season was spent under the direction of Mike Aldrich, who was a finalist in the initial coaching search after Rudolph was hired at UND. In his only season under Aldrich, he threw for 1,665 yards and a touchdown to interception ratio of 9:11.

“I’m incredibly proud of the work my teammates were able to put basically having zero control of the situation all those years,” he added. “It’s a testament to the character of the guys who were recruited here and to be able to keep this program together and for the most part competitive, even though we didn’t win as many games as we wanted. This last year we played in so many close games, where we’re one score away from being a 6-5 team, 7-4 instead of 3-8.”

The next level calls

After his final season as a Beaver, Cunha noted that he wasn’t really thinking about the next level. In fact, he was getting his resume together to start applying for Graduate Assistant positions to start his coaching career, but sometime throughout the process, sent his tape out to a few CFL teams. Instead, player personnel directors for a pair of small school all-star games had a different idea. Prior to competing in the Dream Bowl,  he was joined by his offensive lineman Logan Gunderson, escaping the harsh winter storms that bury North Dakota to sunny Daytona, FL to compete in the FCS Bowl as a member of the National Team. It was here that he said he realized he could make it at the next level.

“There’s a level of uncertainty at first when you get thrown into these events and I knew that 10 minutes into the first practice I could handle all the stuff that was going on,” He added. “It was a lot of fun, getting to make new connections, new friendships were just the cherry on top.”

Little did he know it was here that he would build a connection that would help build on what he has been unconsciously chasing for the last six years.

Tony Racioppi, the quarterback coach for TEST Football Academy was one of the coaches on the FCS roster and extended an open invitation for Cunha to join the facility to train. For 10 days, he has worked an intense routine of quarterback drills, speed and conditioning drills and weight training.

The 6-foot-3 signal caller notes that he has about 10 days remaining before going to Indianapolis for the BSN National Scouting Combine. Cunha is joined by a familiar name for those who take in Division II football as Texas A&M Commerce signal caller and 2017 Harlon Hill winner Luis Perez is also looking to make his jump to the next level. He noted that he has had a friendship with Perez for the last couple of years after working with the same quarterback coach over the summer.

Talking X’s and O’s 

Like most quarterbacks, Cunha isn’t afraid to talk about the X’s and O’s of the game. In fact, just from the hour-long conversation, it was quick to see that he has a great understanding of the game. Talking different concepts and plays, the one play that he opted to point out was one that he deemed his favorite play call from when Rudolph was his coach.

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Cunha went into breaking down the concept and why it was such a good play for a young quarterback to run:

“It was one of our third down pass play call, so 3-and-7 plus. There’s a blitz control route for the three receiver side. A dig route by No.2 receiver and a post by No.1 receiver. Basically it was control the middle of the field with the inside receiver running an angle and we would “Hi-Lo” that curl defender with the follow and the swing by the back out of the backfield. It was a solid play for a young quarterback like me that I could latch onto without a ton of experience and I think I got pretty good at reading it at the end of my sophomore year.”

That wasn’t the only talk that Cunha was able to methodically talk about. In fact, Outside of masterfully breaking down his favorite play calls or plays like the one that ended an overtime thriller in 2013, he was also able to dive talk about his strengths and weaknesses.

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Having film sessions on a routine basis as a part of the training at best, Cunha noted that he believes his strengths really start with his presence in the pocket, being able to avoid the rush or be comfortable enough to stand tall and not let bodies around him affect his mechanics or even his posture. He also stated that he as the arm strength to make every throw that is required for the position.

“I think decision making has been something that been developed into a strength,” he added. “It wasn’t always a strength, especially after my freshman year, understanding that you’re going to take a shot, but you can deliver the ball and still take a shot.”

Cunha also states the having the unfortunate circumstance of having so many different coaches has also allowed him to continually sharpen his football IQ, given that in the grand scheme of things, he had to learn four different offenses throughout his time at Minot State.  As for areas that must have improvement in order to see continued success, the completion percentage must be better.

“It has to improve,” he stated. “A lot of those were throwaways or throwing as I’m getting hit, but regardless, you can’t complete 56 percent or 58 percent. You want that number over 60 percent to ensure that you’re in a position to be successful.”

Cunha has noted that he doesn’t really have a mark on what the future holds. He stated that he is aware of the interest in the CFL and has even heard feedback from a handful of CFL scouts. He also noted that his agent, Kindu Walker of Litchfield Cavo, is taking care of most of the NFL interaction. As for the future plan, he said the plan is to try and attend North Dakota State’s pro day as a chance to workout in front of scouts or even conduct a throwing session at Minot State with scouts in attendance under the new “bubble” that new covers the turf of Herb Parker Stadium.

Regardless of the uncertainty of his future, one thing is clear, the numerous battles with adversity have molded Cunha into being able to take anything that not just the game of football, but life throws at his way.

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Joshua Zimmer
Josh Zimmer is the Lead NFL Draft analyst for NGSC Sports as well as serving as a contributor for NHL coverage.

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