Good players from Vanderbilt can often get lost in the mix of strong front-7 options in the SEC, but linebacker Zach Cunningham deserves national attention. The former four-star recruit has gained about 30 pounds since entering college while maintaining the athleticism that made him an attractive high school player. Still, Cunningham didn’t receive the big-time offers he probably deserved. Now at 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds, his size and athleticism compare favorably to the best SEC linebackers, and his on-field performance matches up just as well.
After playing 423 snaps as a redshirt freshman in 2014, Cunningham broke out in 2015 with a +21.9 overall grade that ranked 16th among the nation’s linebackers and third in the SEC. He graded positively in all three phases – against the run, in coverage, and as a pass rusher – with his work in the run game ranking second among SEC linebackers and his run stop percentage of 13.4 percent ranking sixth among the nation’s inside linebackers.
The first thing that stands out when watching Cunningham is his speed and physicality. When left unblocked, he flies to the ball and his strong closing speed puts him in position on a number of plays. Cunningham attacks blockers with vigor, aggressively using his hands to take on and defeat blocks in the run game. The athleticism shows up in coverage as well, as Cunningham has the range to make plays in zone coverage as well as the movement skills to match up with opposing tight ends and running backs. He uses his length to make plays on the ball in coverage, and that’s a part of his game that will make him an excellent NFL prospect as his understanding of the game continues to progress.
Cunningham shows his range and length in coverage:
Cunningham beats the block and makes the play in the run game:
If there’s one place in which Cunningham must to improve, it’s his ability to finish plays and tackle. He’ll often attack ball carriers too high, leading to his falling off too many tackles or whiffing completely. Even when he does complete the tackle, he doesn’t finish with quite the same power that he shows when looking to take on blocks.
Cunningham whiffs on the easy tackle:
Cunningham missed one of every 9.7 tackle attempts — 44th-best among inside linebackers — which is actually better than former Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith fared as a sophomore in 2014 when he missed one out of every 6.6 attempts. Smith improved his tackling as a junior before going down to injury and getting drafted in the second round by the Dallas Cowboys, and if Cunningham can make similar strides, he’ll put himself in great position to become an All-American and potentially a top-round draft choice.
With a strong showing as a redshirt sophomore, Cunningham has already attracted the NFL’s attention, it’s now time to take the next step in his game. He’s flashed range and play-making ability in coverage, and improving his play recognition will put him in position to make even more plays. Cunningham is a willing run defender, capable of taking on and defeating blocks, but he must improve his tackling and ability to finish plays. If he can continue to progress, Cunningham heads into the 2016 season as a potential All-American candidate and NFL scouts will be keeping a close eye on his development whether he comes out this year or in 2017.