By David Knox, Sports Editor
PINSON — Former Pinson Valley standout and current Vanderbilt linebacker Zach Cunningham was named Tuesday as a preseason contender for the Bednarik Award, presented to the college football’s Defensive Player of the Year.
Cunningham, a junior, is one of 22 standouts from the Southeastern Conference included on the 88-player watch list. The Bednarik Award, named for former University of Penn and Philadelphia Eagles star Chuck Bednarik, has been presented to the College Defensive Player of the Year since 1995.
The Bednarik list is the latest preseason recognition for Cunningham, who captured unanimous First team All-SEC honors a year ago. Earlier this summer, he has been named to various All-SEC units by preseason magazines and has received preseason All-America honors from Athlon Sports and Phil Steele.
“It doesn’t surprise me one bit,” said Pinson Valley coach Matt Glover. “He’s the best football player I have ever coached so far. Good things happen to good people, and I’m happy for him.
“I know we didn’t think he got the recognition he deserved (in high school), but he’s getting it now.”
Cunningham is coming off a remarkable year in 2015. Inserted into the lineup in the third game of the season, Cunningham finished the campaign among the SEC leaders in solo tackles, total tackles, tackles for loss, forced fumbles and fumble recoveries. He was voted first team all-league by the head coaches and Associated Press, along with numerous publications.
Cunningham’s 16.5 tackles for loss last year ranks third all-time among Vanderbilt defenders, and is the most by a Commodore since linebacker Jamie Winborn set the team record with 23 tackles for loss in the 1999 season. Cunningham’s 69 solo tackles from a year ago also is highest single-season total since linebacker Moses Osemwegie registered 83 unassisted stops a decade ago.
Cunningham also contributed four forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries.
Cunningham also was stellar in SEC play, averaging more than 10 tackles in eight conference games. He had at least 10 tackles against the Commodores’ final five SEC opponents. He finished the year by contributed 10 solo tackles against both Texas A&M and Tennessee.
At Pinson Valley, Cunningham was captain his senior year and a three-year starter at linebacker. He concluded his prep career by receiving Alabama 5A Lineman of the Year and Birmingham News’ Lineman of the Year honors after the 2012 season. As a senior, he was named first team All-State after leading Indians to 8-4 record and second round of 5A playoffs.