Zach Cunningham (Nate Latsch-Scout.com)

Who was the Commodores top defensive player in 2016?

The Commodores defense, led by head coach Derek Mason, held the season in check and allowed the Vanderbilt offense to grow while pushing towards postseason play. A top 20th ranked defense, was led by an All-American who is forced with making the decision to go pro or stay in school.

Defensive MVP

* Zach Cunningham - (Jr) - Linebacker *

Vanderbilt's defense has been consistent under the teaching of Derek Mason but has gone to another level under the play of consensus 1st team All-American linebacker Zach Cunningham. The Birmingham native has been a standout from the moment he stepped on the field and eventually established himself as one of the top linebacker's in the Southeastern Conference. 

On the 2016 season, Cunningham led the SEC in tackles with 125 overall along with 16.5 tackles for loss, 2 forced fumbles, 4 fumble recoveries and 1 blocked field goal. The only thing Cunningham didn't achieve throughout his junior season was collecting a sack but other than that, he was all over the field and was a key focal point for every coach around the conference. You had to account for where Cunningham was on the field because it didn't matter where the ball was, the former 4-star linebacker would find it. 

Cunningham came into his junior season as one of the top linebacker's in the conference but by season's end, he not only established himself as one of the best players from the SEC but also one of the best linebackers in the entire country. The hallmark moment when Cunningham became a household name around the country came when the junior linebacker hurdled the Auburn long snapper to block a Daniel Carlson field goal, which gave his Commodores team a chance for a game winning drive. It was a phenomenal athletic play that allowed the nation to capture the pure abilities that Cunningham possesses. 

Vanderbilt's defense had a successful season but probably not up to par in the way Coach Mason would of liked. Cunningham was asked to do a lot for the Dores defense and he supplied everything asked of him. Whether it was tracking down the ball, creating turnovers or even dropping into pass coverage, Cunningham played sideline to sideline defense all season long and his efforts were rewarded with several postseason honors. 

Cunningham became the Commodore's 1st consensus All-American when he was placed on the 1st team of every publications All-American squads. It was a no brainer to have Cunningham on every All-American 1st teams as he clearly showed that he was one of the top defensive players in the country and someone squarely on the radar of every NFL general manager. 

As of today, Cunningham is listed as a possible 1st round draft pick in the 2017 Draft but he has yet to announce his intentions to go pro or return to school for his senior season. Vanderbilt virtually returns everybody from their 2016 team but adding Cunningham back for his senior year would be like attaining a signature from a 5-star recruit on national signing day. 

Even if Cunningham decides to turn pro, he would leave Vanderbilt as one of the best defensive players of all time that wore the black and gold. He would be greatly missed but appreciated for his time in Nashville and his dedication to the football team. 

Others Considered 

www.scout.com/player/143375-ryan-white

The junior safety had a breakout season as a full time starter for the first time in his career. White was 3rd on the team in total tackles with 75 and was one of the best defensive run stoppers on the Commodores defense. White has positioned himself for a breakout senior season in black and gold

www.scout.com/player/157300-adam-butler

A consistent hard working lineman, Butler has been a staple on the Commodores defensive line for most of his career and as a senior, had probably his best season yet with his time in Nashville. Always stout against the run, Butler had his best season yet getting after the quarterback and consistently making plays behind the line of scrimmage. Butler had 31 total tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss and 4 sacks on his senior season. 


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