‘Slimmer, stronger, smarter’

Zac Cunha arrived at Minot State University with the ability to throw a beautiful deep ball and the arm strength to thread passes into tight spaces.

During a 3-8 true freshman campaign in 2012, Cunha found out those spaces close a little faster at the college level.

Cunha was picked off 21 times last season, often while forcing throws over the middle or heaving bombs into tight coverage. As a sophomore, Cunha is hoping a better understanding of the offense and a willingness to take shorter gains will eliminate some of those miscues and keep the Beavers on the field.

“I’ve really been trying to work on the short passing game, being real precise with all my quick-game stuff,” said the 6-foot-3, 230-pound signal-caller. “That way, we can throw the ball deep and kind of dink and dunk a little bit underneath, making us a little harder to defend.”

The Rocklin, Calif., native showed flashes of brilliance last season, when he completed 51 percent of his passes for 1,982 yards and 14 touchdowns. The prototypical pocket passer would often have the offense humming one possession and commit a turnover the next. During a 26-20 loss at Upper Iowa, Cunha connected on 22 of 38 passes for a season-high 320 yards but tossed four interceptions.

“Just about every time he turned the ball over, you could see the wide-eyed freshman in him,” MSU coach Paul Rudolph said.

By all accounts, that wide-eyed freshman is gone. Cunha has shed about 10 pounds since last season, and Rudolph said his teammates are responding to his hard work and the confidence he now exudes.

“He’s slimmer, stronger and smarter,” Rudolph said. “Now he’s just gotta go out and do it. He’s seeing things better, he’s putting everyone where they’re supposed to be. So far … there hasn’t been any bad. For the most part, he has a better demeanor and he understands what the heck’s goin’ on.”

Even though Cunha – who graduated high school with a 3.98 GPA – picked up the Beavers’ offense quickly last season, he is still improving on taking his third and fourth options in the passing game.

“He’s taken tremendous strides, even from the spring into the fall,” junior wideout Leon LaDeaux said. “He’s been accepting the check-down a little more, not forcing the play (and) taking what the defense is giving him. That’s really gonna make him a lot better also, and is really gonna help our offense.”

Last season, Cunha was entrenched in a three-way battle for the starting job during fall camp. There is no question he’s the Beavers’ guy in 2013, with sophomore Matt Hanson locked into the backup role.

He’s starting to behave like The Guy, too.

“He’s just so much more confident,” Rudolph said. “He’s got a better understanding of the system, he’s got a better understanding of the defenses. He’s not trying to learn how to play in the conference and learn how to play in the offense.”

Daniel Allar reports on Minot State University athletics and assists with high school coverage. Follow him on Twitter @DAllar_MDN.

Editor’s note: This is part three of an eight-part series breaking down each unit of the Minot State University football team. Linebackers will be featured in Sunday’s paper.