In four years at Vanderbilt, Zach Cunningham developed from four-star recruit into a consensus All-American. Now, he’ll carry the Commodores’ banner into the NFL after being selected in the second round of the 2017 NFL Draft by the Texans.
Cunningham was a James Franklin recruit who came to personify all the good aspects of Derek Mason’s tenure to date. The 6’4 inside linebacker improved every season he stayed in Nashville, growing from redshirt freshman to game-changing tackler in the process. With Cunningham serving as the heart and soul of the defense, the Commodores improved from 3-9 dumpster fire to a bowl team in 2016.
He took advantage of his soaring stock after a triumphant junior season that included wins over Georgia, Ole Miss, and Tennessee. While the team could certainly have used his leadership and versatility this fall, he’ll still serve the team as proof of how Mason can mold upper-level high school athletes into premiere NFL prospects.
It didn’t take long for the Pinson, Ala., native to become a force for Mason - he was starting by the end of his first season on the field, and he was named a first-team All-SEC standout as a sophomore. By the time he declared for the draft, he’d left his mark as one of the most versatile and clutch linebackers in the country.
Cunningham is a plus defender in all aspects of the game. While he’s a bit lean at 234 pounds, that light frame helps him cover ground from sideline to sideline as both a run stopper and in pass coverage. He racked up 125 tackles last fall, including 16.5 for losses, but also managed to break up or defend six passes when Mason asked him to drop in coverage to shadow tight ends and slot receivers.
But the most impressive part of Cunningham’s game can’t be quantified in statistics. His timely, out-of-nowhere tackle against Georgia helped seal what was, at the time, the biggest win of the Mason era in Nashville (GIF shamelessly stolen from Pro Football Focus).
Three weeks later, he snuffed out Auburn’s insurance field goal to give the ‘Dores a chance to tie the game with a last-ditch drive. Though Vandy couldn’t pull out the win, the game provided an excellent example of Cunningham’s athleticism and flair for clutch plays.
His ability to emerge from seemingly nowhere and drag down ballcarriers made him the most important member of a resurgent Vanderbilt defense. Cunningham has a nose for the ball and an inherent ability to make plays - his college coach compares Cunningham’s ability to diagnose and key plays to that of Richard Sherman, whom Mason coached while at Stanford.
He’s got his flaws as well. Cunningham struggled with missed tackles with the ‘Dores, and he’s not the kind of pass rushing threat on which NFL teams place a premium. He’s still growing as a player, and while he learned quickly under Mason in Nashville, there will be a significant adjustment in going from the SEC to the pros.
Even so, he’ll have a chance to be the best Commodore to come out of the draft since All-Pro Casey Hayward was drafted in 2012. Cunningham’s play was one of the biggest factors behind Vanderbilt’s upward trend last fall. While he’ll be difficult to replace, his spot in the second round of the 2017 NFL Draft just proves jumping to the big leagues was the right move for the young athlete.