HOOVER, Ala. — The most underrated player in the SEC first started turning heads in a 44-17 loss back in 2014.
Vanderbilt was getting mauled by Georgia that day in Athens. Bulldog star Todd Gurley ran for 163 yards and wrecked the Commodores, but first-year Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason noticed one guy on his defense was up to the challenge.
Zach Cunningham, a 19-year-old redshirt freshman.
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“He was the only dude on our team that could get Gurley on the ground,” Mason said. "That’s special. He tackled him three times by himself. Believe me, the NFL is still trying to figure out how to tackle Gurley. That lets you know we’ve got a different player, but what we were looking for was consistency.
"He didn’t show it early in camp but when it came closer to game time, he started to figure out how you practice is how you play and if he wanted to be a starter, if he wanted to be a guy, then he had to earn that right. And he did. Nigel (Bowden) got hurt, He stepped in and never gave it back.”
Zach Cunningham records an interception against Florida last season. (Rob Foldy/Getty Images)
Bowden was the team’s leading returning tackler, but after he went down with a season-ending injury, the 6-4, 230-pound Cunningham blossomed into a star for what proved to be a very stout defense that finished No. 28 in total defense and was No. 6 in third-down defense. Cunningham made 103 tackles last season to go with 16.5 TFLs and four forced fumbles, earning first-team All-SEC honors and winning high praise from Mason, the former Stanford defensive coordinator who knows plenty about play-making defenders.
Asked what makes Cunningham so special, Mason started by talking about his player’s anticipation and ability to read, recognize and diagnose.
"He sees things before they happen,” Mason said. "I had a guy like him at Stanford — Shayne Skov. You thought he wasn’t paying attention but he paid attention to everything. Zach understands angles. He can play sideline to sideline. He’s got great dimension. He can play on the line of scrimmage and get back. He can match running backs out of the backfield. We let him play to the boundary side and match receivers with safety help over the top. That dude has as many dimensions as any player I’ve ever coached.
"He is explosive and can cover a lot of ground. As a blitzer, he finds a way to finish. As a coverage guy, there’s very few guys that can run away from him because he runs like a deer. To have a guy that can do a lot of different dimensions in this defense is what makes Zach great.”
Derek Mason (Rob Foldy/Getty Images)
Cunningham, who picked Vanderbilt over Auburn and Oregon, said the reason why he could make plays on Gurley — and keeps making plays comes back to his mindset.
“It’s about, ‘I’m not going to be run over. I’m not going to be outdone by this guy across from me.’”
His mindset is a lot more laid-back when it comes to not getting much preseason all-American hype after his big season in 2015.
“Accolades is not something that motivates me,” he said.
His teammate, fellow linebacker Oren Burks, said that’s another thing that makes Cunningham special.
“He really doesn’t care about the accolades. He just wants to play and make this team better."