Vanderbilt’s Zach Cunningham More Than a Game Changer

Vanderbilt’s Zach Cunningham More Than a Game Changer

Best Kept Secret

HOUSTON, TX – OCTOBER 31: Greg Ward Jr. #1 of the Houston Cougars looks to make a move on Zach Cunningham #41 of the Vanderbilt Commodores at TDECU Stadium. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)

If you Google Vanderbilt Commodore Zach Cunningham, descriptions like “the SEC’s best kept secret” or “best defensive player you have never heard of” come up. Zach Cunningham blew his SEC counterparts statistically out of the water this season. Yet, he is more than just a game changing football player. He is a son, brother, cousin, musician, and a Vanderbilt Man.

Sweet Home Alabama

Zach Cunningham was born and raised in Pinson, Alabama. He is the fifth of seven children born to Fred and Sophie Cunningham, spending his formative years in a neighborhood surrounded by family. “Growing up family was a huge thing for me. My whole neighborhood was filled with my cousins,” he explained. “I had the chance to go through school with my older sister and my younger brother. We are all two years apart. That was fun thing for me.” Also, while at Pinson Valley High School, Cunningham lettered in basketball and track; long jump and high jump were his specialty.

ATHENS, GA – OCTOBER 15: Zach Cunningham #41 of the Vanderbilt Commodores celebrates after the game against the Georgia Bulldogs. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)

He grew up as an Alabama fan, which is the school he originally wanted to play for. By the time Nick Saban and his staff took notice of Cunningham, they were only offering a grey shirt.  Oregon and Auburn were in the mix as well. Oregon was too far away from his extensive family. But Vanderbilt had the best of both worlds: a world class education as well as the SEC competition.



Family Business

Ultimately, the work ethic runs strong in the Cunningham family, as both of his parents are self-employed. His dad, Fred has a landscaping business. His mom, Sophie does general contracting work. They made sure their seven children had a hand in the family businesses, as they instilled a drive to succeed. “After practice we would get picked up and have to go cut yards with my dad. Weekends too. We were always helping out” explained Zach. “My mom does carpentry, so there were several nights we would be up late helping her finish houses, putting up sheet rock, taping and mudding.” Cunningham credits his self-employed parents with his drive to succeed and his tough work ethic.

Jumping Off The Charts

With two supportive parents, six siblings, and countless cousins within driving distance of most games, Cunningham has had to count on his teammates to help supply the “Cunningham Crew” with tickets to his games. Yet, they have been on hand for some of his biggest and brightest moments of the 2016 season.

Cunningham finished the season ranked in the Top Ten nationally with 125 total tackles, leading the SEC in tackles. He was ranked second among SEC defenders with his 71 solo tackles. Last but not certainly not least, he tied for third in the SEC, with 16.5 tackles for loss. Cunningham also had one absolutely amazing blocked kick.

BEST Defensive Player

When asked about Derek Mason’s defense, Cunningham explained one of his favorite aspects, “The versatility of Mason’s defense allows you to do different jobs. It gives a lot of players the ability to show off their different skills.” The diversity of Mason’s defense helped earn Cunningham national recognition.

ATLANTA, GA – SEPTEMBER 17: Dedrick Mills #26 of the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets eludes the tackle attempt by Zach Cunningham #41 of the Vanderbilt Commodores to score a touchdown at Bobby Dodd Stadium on September 17, 2016 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)

The nation took notice of Cunningham’s relentless tenacity on the field. As he was nominated for both the Butkus and Chuck Bednarik Awards. He finished second (he should have won) in voting for the Butkus award, despite blowing the competition away statistically. Zach also became the first Vanderbilt player in team history to earn unanimous First Team All-America recognition. “I’m appreciative and honored to be nominated for these awards. They are not my main focus when I am on the field. It is nice to see people paying attention, and Vanderbilt getting some recognition.

Hidden Talents

Vanderbilt players Oren Burks and Zach Cunningham. (Photo by: Kate Pearson-Halyburton, LWOS)

On the field, hurdling offensive linemen and making game-saving tackles are Cunningham’s super powers. Meanwhile off the field, Cunningham plays guitar and sings. Yes, plays guitar and sings. Actually, there are several Vanderbilt football players who have been known to get together and jam. Oren Burks plays drums. Sam Dobbs plays guitar (check him out on Instagram). They have a piano player and a saxophone player. The guys get together and jam when they have free time. Cunningham would not give an exact play list, but he did admit that John Legend is one of his favorite artists. Although, if you were to listen to the pregame song he has had since high school, you will understand how truly diverse Cunningham is.

The Future

Zach Cunningham is a red-shirt junior. January 16th is the last day to declare for the NFL draft, and the Commodore Nation holds its breath as they are waiting to find out if Cunningham will be back for his senior season. A season FULL of momentum and potential.

Zach is working towards a degree in Economics and is due to graduate in the spring. Like most young adults, he is undecided about his future as it relates to his major. His future is bright, as Cunningham has very attainable goals of making an NFL roster.

Coach Mason laid out some big expectations when he took the job in 2014. He talked about competing for an SEC Championship at his first SEC Media days. Ultimately, the way Mason, Cunningham, and the Commodores finished 2016, those goals are very well with in reach. That being said, may Zach Cunningham’s deep-seeded drive to succeed bring him back for his senior season and some unfinished business.

Main Photo

October 3, 2015: Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders running back Shane Tucker (1) is taken down by Vanderbilt Commodores linebacker Zach Cunningham (41) during a game between the Vanderbilt Commodores and Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders at Johnny