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BY JASON VONDERSMITH/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/Coaching staff change at Oregon didn't matter to versatile linebacker prospect who was injured as a prep senior

Growing up in Portland, Marcus "MJ" Cunningham always watched the Oregon Ducks play. He was a little kid when they played Auburn and Cam Newton for the national title in January 2011 and a teenager when the Ducks took on Ohio State and Ezekiel Elliott in January 2015.

Oregon lost both times — "we should have two national championships," he says — but the seed had been planted in Cunningham. He wanted to be a Duck.

Not even a coaching change, from Willie Taggart to Mario Cristobal, prevented the Madison High senior, who spent three years at Portland Interscholastic League Franklin, from signing with the Ducks in December.

"I grew up an Oregon Duck fan my whole life," he says. "It didn't matter, the coaching staff. When Coach Taggart left, it didn't play a big role. ... I liked Oregon not just for Coach Taggart, but everything else."

Cunningham liked defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt. He liked the school. He liked the tradition. He knew Oregon linebacker A.J. Hotchkins and fellow UO prospect Eli'jah Winston, but didn't have any other strong individual connections. (Winston ended up signing with USC). Oregon's fashion statements with uniforms and helmets weren't so much the appeal. It was just the right place for him.

UCLA, before its coaching staff had been let go, and TCU also were in the mix for Cunningham. But after he took his official visit to Oregon in December, he cancelled an official visit to Fort Worth, Texas and TCU.

Cunningham is one of 24 recruits signed by Cristobal and his staff, including one of the 15 inked during the new, early signing period in December. (So was Lake Oswego High's Dawson Jaramillo, the only other Oregon prep in the recruiting class and another player TCU tried to lure away from his home state).

Cunningham says he feels fortunate to sign with the Ducks. He suffered a broken foot metatarsal during a UO football camp last July and played only briefly last season. And, he played a lot of quarterback during his junior season. But the Ducks liked enough of what they saw in the 6-3, 230-pound Cunningham to sign him as an "athlete." Only, it's been determined that he'll play linebacker, either outside or inside.

"The doctor didn't want to rush me (back to playing), because I already had a scholarship," he says.

Several new Ducks already have enrolled, including QB Tyler Shough. Cunningham will be part of the group that arrives in June for summer workouts in preparation for August training camp. He's excited to get back to football.

"I'll be just very, very happy to be putting on the pads and feeling it again, running around and hitting," he says. "(The injury) made me cherish the game a lot more, having it taken away me for a full year."

He'll have to adjust to the speed of college football, work on athleticism and "dive into the playbook right away."

To play for the Ducks will be a dream come true. And, he figures that whatever happens in football, getting his degree will be part of his future success.

Cunningham is the second Madison linebacker to receive an NCAA Division I scholarship offer in two years. Last year, it was Daniel Green, who's basically the same size (6-3, 230) as Cunningham. Green committed to USC and then signed with Kansas State in February 2017; he had to get academics straightened out and "grayshirted" during the 2017 season, meaning he postponed enrollment.

Cunningham says Green, a friend of his, had planned to move to Manhattan, Kansas and enroll at K-State this week.

"He's the same size, same build, same everything," Cunningham says. "I feel like I'm more versatile, I can do a bit of everything — hit and cover guys. He's more of a middle linebacker/Ray Lewis type."

Unlike Green, academics and entry into his school won't be a problem for Cunningham, he says.

"I'll be the first kid to go to college from my immediate family," he says.

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