After being named to virtually every first team All-SEC list in 2015, Zach Cunningham has been named to multiple 2016 preseason nominee lists, including the Dick Butkus, Bronko Nagurski and the Denarik awards. His 16½ tackles for a loss and four forced fumbles were third highest among SEC players during the regular season. With 14 career starts in 23 games, Cunningham is the leader among the linebacker unit. He's also the Vanderbilt active career leader in total tackles (170), solo tackles (106), tackles for a loss (23), forced fumbles (five), and fumble recoveries (three).
At the 2:10 mark in the video below you see how much pressure Cunningham is able to apply to opposing signal callers. When Cunningham comes running off the edge to completely blindside a quarterback, they are not going to have a good time.
Shortly after the last play, at the 3:25 in the video above, Cunningham makes a huge play to stop Texas A&M's Tra Carson short of the first down. Between Nigel Bowden and Cunningham, the 'Dores have one of the best inside linebacker units in the SEC. Having linebackers who are able to help control the line of scrimmage in front of an experienced secondary is part of the reason Vanderbilt's defense has ranked in the top 25 in multiple categories. Cunningham is just one of four of the Commodores top five tacklers from a season ago who are back for the 2016 season.
At 2:09 in the video below Cunningham makes an outstanding tackle to knock Tennessee's Jalen Hurd back short of the first down. Cunningham had the benefit of being mentored by former Commodore Chris Marve, who ranks among Vanderbilt's all-time Top Ten tacklers. This season Marve moved from defensive graduate assistant to inside linebackers coach and will have more time to focus on Cunningham and his teammates. At 3:17 in the same video below, you see Zach read the play perfectly before keeping his outside containment to force the runner inside and limitited the Vols' to a short gain.
Cunningham has averaged 8.6 tackles per game over his career, which ranks fifth in the conference and 50th in the NCAA under active individuals. In our final video below at the 01:19:54 mark, one thing you don't want to do is hold the ball away from your body within Cunningham's reach. There is a good reason he has five forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries over his two seasons on the field. The Commodores are lucky to have a defensive player who can tackle exceptionally well with the awareness to strip opposing ball carriers. With Vanderbilt putting an emphasis on rushing the passer, Zach should have more chances at fumble recoveries and interceptions this season.