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Luke Easterling | July 1, 2016 11:55 am ET
For most of the Middle Tennessee State football players, it was just a Chick-Fil-A sandwich.
For cornerback Jeremy Cutrer, it was something more — a symbol of how far he’d come. From a fatherless childhood and being left homeless and hungry by Hurricane Katrina, he’d appreciate a late-night snack with his newfound gridiron brotherhood.
Off the field, in the classroom and between the lines, Cutrer has never had it easy.
A four-star recruit out of Jewel Sumner High School in Kentwood, Cutrer had the same dream as many Louisiana prep stars: to be an LSU Tiger. But Cutrer was unable to qualify academically, forcing him to begin his collegiate career at the junior college level for Mississippi Gulf Coast.
It was just the latest in a long line of adversities, but Cutrer credits his time at the JUCO level with helping him become the man he is today.
“All I had ever dreamed about was LSU, LSU,” Cutrer says. “For any kid here, to stay in your home state and play at LSU, that was one of the biggest things. And for me to not get that chance, it was really frustrating.”
“My JUCO coach sat me down and talked to me, and it took me a minute to realize I could really make something happen. A lot of people don’t like JUCO, but JUCO will really make you who you are. That’ll make a man out of you. I’m really glad I went to JUCO first, to be honest, but it took me a long time to realize that.”
He may have been frustrated by having to take an alternate route in his football career, but Cutrer had already faced far darker times in his personal life.
For all of Cutrer’s life, his father has been incarcerated. After the death of his 25-year-old brother, Cutrer was forced to become the man of the house at a young age.
Then came Katrina.
“It was something I’ll never forget,” Cutrer says of the 2005 storm that devastated the entire New Orleans area. “At first, we were just planning to ride it out, because we didn’t think it would be that bad of a storm. But when it hit, it hit hard. The water started coming up to the house, so we had to get out.”
“What really saved us was there was an exit drop right behind our house, from the bridge. So, it was easy for us to get to the bridge, but we had to get through all the water.”
The devastating impact of the storm still haunts Cutrer, who was just 11 years old when his home, everything he knew, was washed away in a matter of moments.
“There were dead bodies everywhere, just floating in the water. It was one of the worst nightmares I’ve ever had in my life.”
“We slept on the bridge for three days. No food, no water. If we did get water, it was really hot. So, even when we got water, it wasn’t like drinking cold water or even warm water. It was hot.”
The tragedies and adversities faced by Cutrer would would have easily devoured a lesser man. Instead, he’s turned them into motivation and a driving force behind his success, both on and off the field.
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“He’s a guy who has beaten the odds,” says Steve Ellis, the Blue Raiders’ cornerbacks coach and recruiting coordinator. “He didn’t qualify academically coming out of high school, had to go to junior college, and now he has a chance to graduate, something people said he wasn’t going to do. They said he could never make it.”
Ellis says Cutrer’s internal fortitude has been an inspiration to him, as well as the rest of the team.
“Everything in life has been stacked against this kid,” says Ellis. “It reminds me of the movie, ‘Antwone Fisher,’ how Antwone thanks Jerome for helping him, and Jerome says, ‘Nah, man. You really helped me.’ I know Middle Tennessee has done so much for Jeremy Cutrer, but really, Jeremy has changed my whole life. He’s changed all of our coaches’ lives. Think of a kid who was homeless, who didn’t know when he was going to eat his next meal, who pretty much had to raise himself. I know we’ve done wonders for him, but he’s done wonders for me, to see how far he’s come.”
“He doesn’t have a phone, he doesn’t have a car. I have never in my life seen a kid so beaten down by life, but still have a smile on his face. So many kids in his situation would have just given up.”
Cutrer’s hardships have also fueled what Ellis calls his most important quality as a football player: his relentless desire to compete.
“The thing that sets him apart, that reminds me of guys I’ve coached that have gone on to play in the NFL, is that he’s an ultra-competitive guy,” Ellis says. “That comes from what he’s been through. He’s tough, hard-nosed, and he plays with that mentality. He’s full-speed, every day.”
“It’s all about motivation,” Cutrer says. “It’s a spiritual thing. My papa always told me I’m like a warrior. Never give up, never bow down. I just love to compete. If I’m not competing, I’m not loving what I’m doing.”
Cutrer’s not just a feel-good story about a kid who overcame long odds. He’s a legitimate NFL prospect with rare physical tools pro scouts are looking for in the secondary. Listed at 6-2, Cutrer has the height and length to match up with the NFL’s bigger receivers, along with the speed, fluidity and instincts to excel in both man and zone coverage. He’s also a converted receiver who is still just scratching the surface of his development on the defensive side of the ball.
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“A lot of tall, long guys don’t have great lateral movement,” says Ellis of Cutrer’s skill set. “He has great lateral movement. He’s a kid who understands football. His skills remind me of (Tennessee Titans 2016 third-round pick) Kevin Byard. He’s very verbal, great understanding of the game, great ball skills, played receiver in high school and also his first year at Mississippi Gulf Coast. So, he’s really still new to the cornerback position.”
Ellis, who also compares Cutrer to Baltimore Ravens defensive back Lardarius Webb (whom Ellis coached at Nicholls State) says Cutrer’s unique skills make him an asset on special teams, as well, and not just as a return man.
“He’s got a fantastic combination of instincts and hand-eye coordination that makes him great at blocking kicks,” Ellis says. “He’s just got this knack for reading the long-snapper’s hands, and with his speed, that’s why he’s able to have that get-off.”
Speaking of Byard, Cutrer says his former teammate, who went through his own adversities of helping raise seven siblings with a single mother, had a huge impact on him as a player and a person.
“KB is one of the biggest brothers I had on this team,” Cutrer says. “He’s the guy that came to me when I first got here and said, ‘I heard you’re a top-notch player, I need someone like you on the field with me,’ stuff like that. And going throughout the season, watching him grow and watching the coaches raving about him, he’s just one of a kind. He makes me ball harder. He makes me want to play harder. His life story, the things he’s been through, that just makes me want to ride harder. He’s had a huge impact on my life, and I really look up to him.”
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Not only does Cutrer’s size and skill set translate well to the pro game, but his ability to adapt quickly to new surroundings and a digest a new playbook should allow him to make an instant impact at the next level.
After failing to qualify academically at LSU out of high school, Cutrer made another attempt to join the Tigers following his two years at Mississippi Gulf Coast.
For the second time, he fell short.
Not only did Cutrer miss out on playing for his dream school yet again, but he also set himself back by missing an entire offseason of football training while working hard in the classroom in an attempt to qualify.
“This is a kid who spent all of his spring football time working on academics, trying to qualify at LSU,” Ellis says. “He came to us in August and had three weeks before our first game. So he showed the ability to come in and learn quickly, to be coachable. It just shows his ability and willingness to put in extra work just so he can be on the same track with some of the veteran players. Because he didn’t get any spring ball. He didn’t get any summer training. So it just showed his ability to learn, to adapt, and to put in the time to understand the system.”
“I tried to make LSU happen again, but it just didn’t come together,” Cutrer says. “So, I was out for an entire spring of football and then came to MTSU for fall camp. I was able to get on the field, started making plays, learning the playbook, and I got on the field pretty fast.”
Pretty fast, indeed.
Despite having just three weeks between arriving at MTSU and the Blue Raiders’ first game, Cutrer started nine games in 2015, earning second-team All-Conference USA honors after picking off three passes, leading the team with 13 pass breakups and even blocking a pair of kicks on special teams.
With Byard gone, Cutrer now takes up the role of senior leader in the Blue Raiders’ secondary for the 2016 season. That said, Cutrer is still focused on the areas he needs to improve, and it starts off the field.
“I want to improve as a person just as much as a football player,” Cutrer says. “I want to be a better man, just all around. I want to get my technique down, keep gaining weight, and just make big plays this year. To not worry about the big things, and just focus on the small things.”
“I want a championship for my team. That’s why I come in and work hard every day and give it my all.”
“What he’s focused on right now is being accountable, disciplined and focused,” Ellis says of Cutrer’s offseason efforts. “If you don’t have those three things, you’re not going to make it in the NFL because it’s so demanding. Those are the things he’s really been working on this offseason. Being accountable not just to the coaches, but to his teammates and to himself. He’s focused on being the best team player he can possibly be, being disciplined and doing all the things he’s supposed to do.”
Cutrer may have the height pro teams are looking for, but his lack of ideal bulk may be a concern. A cursory look at last year’s media guide is sure to give NFL scouts some pause, as Cutrer is listed at just 175 pounds.
Ellis says Cutrer’s hard work in the offseason had paid off, as he’s already put on nearly 10 pounds. But the training required for Cutrer to fill out has frame has been fairly unique, and it all goes back to the incredibly difficult times he endured as a high school athlete.
“”He’s focused on getting his weight up,” Ellis says. “He’s already gone from around 175 pounds into the 180 range just by having three square meals a day and being in the weight room. This is a kid who has been homeless, so the weight is coming naturally now because he’s eating every day, working out every day. He’s finally found a stable place for himself. He was 15 years old and homeless, so he had trained his body not to eat. We had to retrain his body to eat properly.”
“This is the first time he’s gotten a full offseason at a Division I program. He came in so late last year, and basically just played that entire season on raw, God-given ability. So, the sky’s the limit for him this year because he’s finally gotten a full offseason, a full summer training program. His potential is just continuing to rise, and it’s really through the roof.”
Cutrer knows there are many more kids just like him back home, trying to overcome long odds to be successful in life. He hopes to use his story to inspire others, and wants to give back to his community in New Orleans through programs that help kids avoid violence by focusing on what helped him overcome his obstacles: football.
“I want what I’ve been through to help other people,” Cutrer says. “The Lord never gives his toughest battles to you if He knows you can’t handle it. With my story, even if I get my degree and go on to keep playing football, I just want to go back and tell kids about not giving up, and to give them ideas in life. To tell them my story and say, ‘This is what you should do, this is what you shouldn’t do,’ and tell them this is why I’m here.”
“I just want to give back to the kids. I want to tell them to put down the guns and pick up footballs. I want to go back to my community and tell them the violence has to stop. I just want to give joy and happiness back to my community.”
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