Zach Cunningham making his case for SEC Defensive Player of the Year

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Zach Cunningham making his case for SEC Defensive Player of the Year

Zach Cunningham (41) blocks a field goal as Vanderbilt lost to the Auburn Tigers 23-16 at Jordan Hare Stadium Auburn, Al November 4, 2016. (Ziyi Liu/ The Vanderbilt Hustler)

Zach Cunningham (41) blocks a field goal as Vanderbilt lost to the Auburn Tigers 23-16 at Jordan Hare Stadium Auburn, Al November 4, 2016. (Ziyi Liu/ The Vanderbilt Hustler)

Ziyi Liu

Zach Cunningham (41) blocks a field goal as Vanderbilt lost to the Auburn Tigers 23-16 at Jordan Hare Stadium Auburn, Al November 4, 2016. (Ziyi Liu/ The Vanderbilt Hustler)

Ziyi Liu

Ziyi Liu

Zach Cunningham (41) blocks a field goal as Vanderbilt lost to the Auburn Tigers 23-16 at Jordan Hare Stadium Auburn, Al November 4, 2016. (Ziyi Liu/ The Vanderbilt Hustler)

Max Schneider, Associate Sports Editor

The SEC is a conference characterized by brutally tough defenses and low scoring games. Look back at any NFL draft and you’re bound to see several first-round picks coming from top SEC defenses. For this reason, it’s no surprise that the SEC Defensive Player of the Year Award carries with it tremendous weight.  

It’s an award that has been largely dominated by players from Alabama, LSU, Georgia and even Missouri in recent years. The team that you never hear in the conversation is Vanderbilt.

A team usually at the bottom of the conference standings, the Commodores haven’t had many players in the spotlight in recent years, but linebacker Zach Cunningham has been making his case for Defensive Player of the Year.  After a game-clinching tackle at Georgia, an ungodly blocked field goal to save certain defeat at Auburn and a crucial fourth-down stop at Missouri, it’s safe to say it’s not so quiet anymore. His name is right up there at the top of the watch list.

Coach Derek Mason has no doubt in his mind on who should win the award.

“I think [Zach] should,” Mason said. “If you can find a better defensive player in the SEC or in college football, show him to me. I’m not going to back down from that, I’ve been coaching football for a while.”

Mason is right: He has been coaching top talent for a while. Throughout his career, he has coached several top college and professional guys on the defensive side of the ball. Cunningham comes second to none for him.

“He’s been as good as anybody I’ve coached. That goes back to Richard Sherman,” Mason said. “Richard was one of the smartest players I’ve ever coached, and I think Zach falls into that realm of guys who can take it from the class to the grass, put it in in-game situations and be big.”

The comparison to Sherman is no doubt a huge endorsement, but Cunningham does exhibit that level of football IQ that puts him in a league of his own. He’s constantly the first player to the ball, and it’s not just because he’s faster and stronger than everyone else, although he does have that going for him.

If you can find a better defensive player in the SEC or in college football, show him to me. I’m not going to back down from that, I’ve been coaching football for a while.

What makes Cunningham so great is his pre-snap preparation. He has the ability to diagnose plays at the line of scrimmage and put himself in a position to make a play, and when he gets there, no running back in the country is going to break that tackle.

When Cunningham lined up way behind the line of scrimmage for a field goal attempt in the final minutes at Auburn, it started to become clear what he was trying to do. Jumping over the line of scrimmage seemed like an impossible feat, but when he timed the play perfectly and the block came to fruition, Jordan-Hare Stadium was in stunned silence. The hurdle seemed to be an act of pure athleticism, but for Cunningham, that play was created by a late-night film study the night before kickoff.

“The night before I noticed something on film, but I wasn’t exactly sure,” Cunningham said. “So when I got to the actual game and what I saw on film was actually happening, I realized that was what I was thinking of the day before the game.”  

Yes, Cunningham was up studying film the night before kickoff. Not eating, or sleeping, or talking to his friends or teammates, but studying film. It takes a special player to put in that kind of work in his off time, but it takes an even more special player to spend that time not just watching film, but watching film of Auburn’s field goal unit. How many players could notice the cadence of a long snapper in their free time, then translate that into a game-time situation and block a crucial field goal in dramatic fashion?

The answer is probably one: Zach Cunningham.

Cunningham says the fourth-and-one stop in Athens was the result of the same thing.  He was studying film of Georgia’s offense, and when he saw Isaiah McKenzie in the backfield late in the game, he knew what to do.

“It was something we had watched during film, so it was something we were looking for on that last play of the game based on the formation they lined up in,” Cunningham said.

It looked like McKenzie was going to have the first down easily, but Cunningham came out of nowhere, shooting through the hole and pulling McKenzie down backwards. It left him just inches short of a first down and gave Vanderbilt its first SEC road win under Mason. It was yet another example of how he gains a pre-snap advantage and uses it to stymie opposing offenses.

Cunningham says he has given no thought to the NFL draft, despite being mocked as high as No. 10 overall. And while that’s hard to believe, he has unfinished business here at Vanderbilt, likely needing two wins to catapult the Commodores into their first bowl appearance in three years.

In this much improved Vanderbilt defense, Cunningham’s numbers speak for themselves.  He leads the conference with 104 tackles, 15.5 of which have gone for a loss, but it’s not just his tackling and run-stopping that make him a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate.  When asked what part of his star linebacker’s game stands out, Mason needed no hesitation.

“All of it. Coverage, the ability to play sideline-to-sideline, the ability to handle respect and really the full acknowledgement of his head coach,” Mason said.

Cunningham is one of the most complete players in all of college football, let alone the SEC, and he seems to have no weakness. He has shown that he’s more than comfortable lining up opposite tight ends, or even in the slot to cover receivers. He has the coverage ability, the run-stopping prowess, the work ethic, the intangibles and all the qualities of a leader of his team.  

The only thing he doesn’t have yet is a Defensive Player of the Year award to show for it.

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