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Proving a Point

By Matt Osborne
SouthernPigskin.com
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Vanderbilt linebacker Zach Cunningham has proven that his 2015 season was far from a fluke.

Despite earning first-team All-SEC honors from every major publication as a redshirt sophomore in 2015, Vanderbilt linebacker Zach Cunningham somehow failed to make the first-team preseason all-conference team at SEC Media Days in July.

But rather than pout and sulk about being snubbed by the media, Cunningham has set out like a man on a mission to prove that last season was no fluke.

Thus far, it is safe to say that he has more than accomplished that objective.

Through eight games, Cunningham leads the conference in both tackles (85) and tackles for loss (13.5), paving his way to what undoubtedly appears to be more first-team All-SEC accolades. His 85 tackles are good for fourth-most in the nation and are the most for any player in a Power Five conference.

Cunningham’s ascension to becoming one of the top defensive players in all of college football is one that has taken a little bit of time and a lot of hard work.

Going through the recruiting process at Pinson Valley High School in Alabama as a 205-pound athlete, it took Cunningham the better part of two seasons to add enough muscle to get up to a modest 230 pounds, his current playing weight.

And while most NFL scouts still cite his need to add more weight to his frame, playing as an undersized linebacker has allowed him to develop some attributes which allow him to thrive as a defender.

If you study a scouting report from an NFL executive on Cunningham, you will notice that the first attribute to be noted is his elite ability to sift his way through opposing blockers to find the football. Throughout his two-and-a-half collegiate seasons at Vanderbilt, he has consistently shown that he is able to elude blocks in order to make tackles in bulk.

Though he is a bit small to play on the inside, Vanderbilt does frequently utilize Cunningham from the middle of its defense due to his propensity to find his way through traffic. That added versatility is just another reason that opposing offenses ar having such a difficult time keeping him from ruining their plays.

"His football IQ is extremely high," Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason recently commented on his star defender. "But to put that in play during in-game situations, some players can do it, some players struggle with it. He understands schemes and he plays sideline to sideline. He's got great range and depth in terms of being able to cover receivers or blitz from inside and outside. For me personally, it's been fun for me to try and move him around and make sure he can be unblocked. Because he can get in and out of traffic very quickly and find the football."

Cunningham seems to almost always make the right decision when it comes to choosing where to run on defense, but he will undoubtedly be faced with a more difficult decision following the end of this campaign. He is currently ranked as one of the top linebacker prospects for the 2017 NFL Draft, meaning that he will have to decide between taking his chances on beginning his professional career or returning for one more year in Nashville.

Before that time arrives, however, Cunningham is simply focused on trying to get the Commodores back to a bowl game for the first time since 2013. Vanderbilt currently sits at 4-4, needing two more victories in its final four contests to reach bowl eligibility. 

And with a difficult schedule awaiting the Commodores over the final month of the regular season, there is no doubt that Vanderbilt will need its best player to play his best football coming down the stretch if the program has aspirations of participating in the postseason.

Given the way that he has performed up to this point, don’t be terribly surprised if Cunningham doesn’t answer that challenge in impressive fashion.

Matt Osborne - Matt Osborne currently serves as the director of recruiting and lead editor for Southern Pigskin. His work has been published in a number of national publications, including USA Today. Although he loves all levels of football, Matt's number one joy in his life is his relationship with Jesus Christ. Follow Matt on Twitter: @MattOsborne200. For media requests, please email Matt at matt@southernpigskin.com.