Vanderbilt LB Zach Cunningham declares for NFL Draft


Ziyi Liu

Zach Cunningham (41) recovers a fumble as Vanderbilt faced the Auburn Tigers at Jordan Hare Stadium Auburn, Al November 4, 2016. (Ziyi Liu/ The Vanderbilt Hustler)

Cutler Klein, Sports Editor

Vanderbilt linebacker Zach Cunningham has declared for the NFL Draft, the redshirt junior announced at the Walter Camp Football Foundation banquet on Saturday.

Cunningham had until Monday to make a decision regarding his future.

Following the announcement, he confirmed his intentions to Vanderbilt Athletics on Sunday.

“We could not be more proud of Zach Cunningham and what he has accomplished as a student-athlete at Vanderbilt,” Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason said. “Zach leaves West End among the most decorated players in Commodore football history, and he works as hard as any student-athlete I have ever coached. Zach’s been a great pleasure to coach and a tremendous teammate.”

“Vanderbilt is indebted to Zach for his impact on our football program, on and off the field. Zach will always be a Vanderbilt Man, and we wish him years of success in the NFL.”

The 6’4” standout linebacker had one of the most decorated seasons ever by a Commodore player in 2016. In addition to being the first Vanderbilt player to earn consensus first team All-American honors, he was a finalist for the Butkus Award and a semifinalist for the Chuck Bednarik Award.

He finished the season as the SEC leader in tackles with 125, putting him in the top 10 nationally. Cunningham also finished second in the SEC in solo tackles with 71, and tied for third in tackles for loss with 16.5. His four fumble recoveries were the second-most in the country.

Throughout the season, Cunningham established himself as a leader in Derek Mason’s defense. He found himself on the highlight reel numerous times in 2016, including his clutch diving arm-tackle on fourth-and-one against Georgia to seal an upset victory for the Commodores.

He also gave Vanderbilt new life late in the game against Auburn with his superhuman field goal block in the fourth quarter. He completely hurdled the line of scrimmage and got his hands up in time to block the kick.

Those accolades, stats and plays all caught the eye of NFL Draft scouts, who watched him throughout the season and touted him as a potential first-round pick in the 2017 draft.

As of Saturday, January 14, numerous mock drafts peg Cunningham as a first-round pick. CBS Sports’ latest mock draft has him going 24th overall to the Oakland Raiders, as does Fox Sports. Walter Football has him going 22nd overall to the Miami Dolphins, and DraftSite has him going 16th overall to the Baltimore Ravens.

There are no reports as to whether or not Cunningham has hired an agent, making his professional status permanent.