By David Knox, Sports Editor
HOOVER – Zach Cunningham, the former Pinson Valley football standout and current Vanderbilt linebacker, made his arrival at SEC Kickoff ’16 in Hoover on Monday with his name on the list of preseason Bednarik Award and Bronko Nagurski Trophy candidates.
You can also put him on the list of most humble and low-key honorees. It’s a short list, too.
How humble? How low-key?
According to Cunningham, he didn’t even tell his mom he was heading back to his old stomping grounds this week. She had to read it in the paper, and called him for an explanation.
The first-team All-SEC linebacker doesn’t mind he’s wearing that “underrated” tag, either.
“That isn’t something I really focus on, whether I’m underrated or not, I just want to go out there and play my best,” he said Monday at Media Days. “I’m not really focused on being the guy that they write headlines about, I just want to go out there and do my best and show what I can do.”
Last season, that had team-leading numbers with 103 tackles, 4.5 sacks, 16.5 stops for losses, four forced fumbles and three recoveries.
He was asked exactly how he managed to do all that as a redshirt sophomore
“I think a coach would be able to speak more on that than I would be able to. When I go out to play, I just try to do my best and that is all I strive to do.
“Coach (Derek) Mason drives it into us to have that ‘destination defense.’ That relentless defense, that is what he preaches to us. Go out there and try to dominate, come out every week and enforce our will on every opponent.”
A member of the media asked him about going against the top running backs in the SEC, and he gave Georgia Bulldogs running back Nick Chubb his props. But actually, it was his play against a former UGA running back, Todd Gurley, that first made his teammates take notice of the former Pinson Valley star in his redshirt freshman season.
“He was the only dude on our team that could get Gurley on the ground,” Mason said. “That’s special. He tackled him three times by himself. Believe me, the NFL is still trying to figure out how to tackle Gurley.”
The 6-foot-4, 230-pound Cunningham is a unique player, with great size, speed and instinct, his coach said.
“He sees things before they happen,” Mason said. “Zach understands angles. He can play sideline to sideline. He’s got great dimensions. He can play on the line of scrimmage and get back. He can match running backs out of the backfield. We let him play to the boundary side and match receivers with safety help over the top. That dude has as many dimensions as any player I’ve ever coached.
“He is explosive and can cover a lot of ground. As a blitzer, he finds a way to finish. As a coverage guy, there’s very few guys that can run away from him, because he runs like a deer. To have a guy that can do a lot of different dimensions in this defense is what makes Zach great.”