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Randall Cunningham rates as UNLV’s top NFL draftee

Quarterback Randall Cunningham is widely considered the greatest UNLV football player of all time.

Now he can also be considered the school’s greatest NFL draftee ever.

A 10-member panel organized by the Review-Journal chose Cunningham, who was drafted in the second round in 1985 by the Philadelphia Eagles and played 16 seasons in the NFL. He passed for 29,979 yards and 207 touchdowns, and rushed for 4,928 yards and 35 TDs.

Cunningham played at UNLV from 1982 to 1984, and remains the Rebels’ career leading passer with 8,020 yards and 59 touchdowns.

“I went into the league hoping to be the best ever, and I put my best foot forward to try to get there,” Cunningham said Wednesday. “I was able to do great things, but in no way am I better than any of the other players that played at UNLV or even in the NFL. I’m just grateful for the opportunity that God opened for me.”

Another NFL Draft takes place beginning today, and two more Rebels hope to be selected. Wide receiver Devante Davis is projected to go in the late rounds, and offensive lineman Brett Boyko likely will be an undrafted free agent.

Cunningham was a runaway choice by the panelists as the top UNLV draftee ever. He was a four-time Pro Bowl selection and is a member of the Eagles’ Hall of Fame. Cunningham played his first 11 seasons in Philadelphia.

Las Vegas is home, however, for Cunningham. He ran down a list of people in Las Vegas he credited with helping him to succeed at UNLV and then in the NFL.

“The people have always been family to me here in Las Vegas,” Cunningham said. “The people have always been very, very kind to me, and it’s always felt like home.”

Like Cunningham, wide receiver Keenan McCardell played 16 seasons in the NFL, but his story was considerably different. As a high draft pick, much was expected from Cunningham. McCardell was selected in the 12th round of the 1991 draft by the Washington Redskins — the draft now is seven rounds — so his chances of even making a roster weren’t good.

But McCardell not only played in the NFL, he caught 883 passes for 11,373 yards and 63 touchdowns. He had five 1,000-yard seasons and was selected to two Pro Bowls, making him UNLV’s second-best draftee.

The third best, defensive back Charles Dimry, also took an unusual path. After getting burned for 13 receptions for 225 yards and five touchdowns in 1990 by San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Jerry Rice, Dimry was given the nickname “Toast.” But Dimry grew from the experience and wound up playing 12 seasons for five teams. He started 106 games and intercepted 21 passes.

Of all the candidates the panelists had to consider, none was more intriguing than running back Ickey Woods. He was like a nova, appearing brightly but only for a short while. However, he burned so brightly as a rookie in 1988 with the Cincinnati Bengals that Woods was chosen the Rebels’ fourth-best draftee.

He rushed for 1,066 yards and 15 touchdowns that rookie season, leading the Bengals to the Super Bowl and creating a culture phenomenon with the “Ickey Shuffle.” Woods resurrected the shuffle for a TV commercial last year. But in his final three seasons in Cincinnati, Woods struggled with knee injuries and wasn’t the same type of player.

Another running back, Mike Thomas, was UNLV’s first NFL draftee, being selected in the fifth round in 1975 by the Redskins. He played six seasons, four with the Redskins and two with the San Diego Chargers. Thomas, ranked fifth by the panel, rushed for 4,196 yards and 19 touchdowns.

Rounding out the top 10 were defensive back Eric Wright, defensive lineman Talance Sawyer, offensive lineman Joe Hawley, defensive back Sam Brandon and offensive lineman Lonnie Palelei.

UNLV’S TOP NFL DRAFTEES

1. QB Randall Cunningham — Played at UNLV from 1982 to 1984. Drafted in the second round in 1985 by the Philadelphia Eagles. Played 16 seasons for four teams, including 11 years with the Eagles. Appeared in 161 games and started 135 times. Passed for 29,979 yards and 207 touchdowns, and rushed for 4,928 yards and 35 TDs. Threw for more than 3,000 yards five times, and rushed for 942 yards in 1990. Four-time Pro Bowl selection. Inducted into the Eagles’ Hall of Fame.

2. WR Keenan McCardell — Played at UNLV from 1987 to 1990. Drafted in the 12th round in 1991 by the Washington Redskins. Played 16 seasons for five teams, appearing in 209 games and starting 168 times. Caught 883 passes for 11,373 yards and 63 touchdowns. Had five 1,000-yard seasons. Two-time Pro Bowl selection.

3. DB Charles Dimry — Played at UNLV from 1984 to 1987. Drafted in the fifth round in 1988 by the Atlanta Falcons. Played 12 seasons for five teams, appearing in 183 games and starting 106 times. Intercepted 21 passes, returning one for a touchdown.

4. RB Ickey Woods — Played at UNLV from 1984 to 1987. Drafted in the second round in 1988 by the Cincinnati Bengals. Played four seasons for the Bengals, appearing in 37 games and starting 20. Rushed for 1,066 yards and 15 touchdowns in 1988 to lead Cincinnati to the Super Bowl. Knee injuries greatly limited his production his final three seasons.

5. RB Mike Thomas — Played at UNLV in 1973 and 1974. Drafted in the fifth round in 1975 by the Washington Redskins. Played six seasons, four with the Redskins and two with the San Diego Chargers. Appeared in 77 games, starting 62 times. Rushed for 4,196 yards and 19 touchdowns. Had one 1,000-yard season. Selected to one Pro Bowl. Was the 1975 Associated Press Offensive Rookie of the Year after rushing for 919 yards and four touchdowns.

6. DB Eric Wright — Played at UNLV in 2006. Drafted in the second round in 2007 by the Cleveland Browns. Played seven seasons, spending time with four teams. Appeared in 92 games and starting 81 times. Intercepted 15 passes, returning two for touchdowns.

7. DL Talance Sawyer — Played at UNLV from 1995 to 1998. Drafted in the sixth round in 1999 by the Minnesota Vikings. Played all five seasons for the Vikings, appeared in 39 games and starting 32 times. Made 95 tackles, including 11 sacks.

8. OL Joe Hawley — Played at UNLV from 2006 to 2009. Drafted in the fourth round in 2010 by the Atlanta Falcons. Still active. Has played all five seasons for the Falcons, appeared in 57 games and starting 23 times.

9. DB Sam Brandon — Played at UNLV from 1998 to 2001. Drafted in the fourth round in 2002 by the Denver Broncos. Played all five seasons for the Broncos, appeared in 63 games and making 12 starts. Had 127 tackles and broke up 12 passes.

10. OL Lonnie Palelei — Played at UNLV in 1991 and 1992. Drafted in the fifth round in 1993 by the Pittsburgh Steelers. Played six seasons for five teams. Appeared in 44 games, starting 26 times.

The voting panel included Rich Abajian, longtime UNLV booster and former assistant football coach; Dick Calvert, UNLV public-address announcer; Chuck Davison, former two-time UNLV Football Foundation president; Harvey Hyde, former UNLV football coach; Tina Kunzer-Murphy, UNLV athletic director; Paul Pucciarelli, UNLV director of athletic equipment; Brad Rothermel, former UNLV athletic director; Mark Wallington, UNLV sports information director for football; and Kyle Wilson, UNLV director of athletic training. Mark Anderson, UNLV football beat writer for Las Vegas Review-Journal; organized and voted on the panel.

Contact Mark Anderson at manderson@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2914. Follow him on Twitter: @markanderson65

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