That’s how Commodores coach Derek Mason described the 6-foot-4, 230-pound redshirt junior inside linebacker on Wednesday morning during the Southeastern Conference coaches teleconference.
“Zach’s a throwback,” Mason said. “He’s a guy that doesn’t want a lot of attention, doesn’t need a lot of attention, doesn’t play for the attention. He plays for the love of the game. He loves football. He loves his teammates. He wants to win.
“I think those things are hard to find nowadays when you talk about building a program and finding the right people. He’s one of those guys. His football I.Q. is high. He makes everyone around him better. To have him on our football team leading the way is what we thought he could do coming into the season and he hasn’t done anything to disappoint.”
Cunningham, a semifinalist for the Butkus and Bednarik Awards and a potential first-round pick in next spring’s NFL Draft, will lead Vanderbilt (4-5 overall, 1-4 in SEC play) into Missouri (2-7, 0-5) on Saturday afternoon as the focal point of the Commodores defense.
An Alabama native, Cunningham is also in the spotlight this week after leaping over Auburn’s front line to block a field goal in Saturday’s 23-16 loss to the Tigers.
“I was excited to see him get over the top,” Mason said. “Once he was over the top I knew he had a chance to block it. I just wished we could have scooped and scored. Zach Cunningham is a tremendous athlete. He’s one of the best players in the SEC and, in my opinion, the best defensive player in the SEC. As I continue to look at what he’s done, he is an All-American — there’s no ifs, ands or buts about it. He’s a special player. I’ve said that all year long and he just continues to play big every opportunity he gets.”
Cunningham was a first-team All-SEC selection a year ago, as a redshirt sophomore after leading Vanderbilt in tackles (103), tackles for loss (16.5) and sacks (4.5).
In nine games this season, Cunningham has 94 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss, two fumble recoveries, one forced fumble, one pass breakup, one quarterback hurry and that memorable blocked kick. He’s leading the Southeastern Conference in tackles and ranks second in tackles for loss.
“Cunningham is all over the place,” Missouri coach Barry Odom said. “It’s amazing. If you just look at his stat line, really, really impressive. But even more impressive the way he’s getting off blocks. His reads are absolutely on point every snap. He’s doing a great job in pass coverage. When he gets in position to make a tackle he’s tackling, he’s getting them done. He’s a violent player and plays the way you’re supposed to.”
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