Vanderbilt's Zach Cunningham thriving under the radar

Vanderbilt's Zach Cunningham thriving under the radar

July 29th, 2016 by David Paschall in Sports - College

Vanderbilt linebacker Zach Cunningham (41) was around the ball a lot last season, compiling 103 tackles and 16.5 tackles for loss in earning all-conference honors.

Photo by Mark Humphrey

Vanderbilt linebacker Zach Cunningham speaks to the media at the Southeastern Conference NCAA college football media day Monday, July 11, 2016, in Hoover, Ala. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Vanderbilt linebacker Zach Cunningham speaks to the media...

Photo by Brynn Anderson

VANDERBILT

Last season: 4-8 (2-6 SEC)

Opener: Sept. 1 vs. South Carolina (8 p.m. on ESPN)

Fun fact: The Commodores nearly played before as many fans (188,388) in their final two road games against Florida and Tennessee last season as they did in their six home games (192,802).

With the smallest alumni base and the fewest number of bowl appearances among the 14 member schools in the Southeastern Conference, the Vanderbilt Commodores are accustomed to being overlooked.

Junior inside linebacker Zach Cunningham is a shining example.

The 6-foot-4, 238-pounder from Pinson, Ala., was a unanimous All-SEC first-team selection last December after compiling 103 tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss, four forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries. Cunningham averaged 10.5 tackles a game against league competition, but when preseason balloting was released this month after media days in Hoover, Ala., he had been relegated to a second-team spot.

"That isn't something I really focus on, whether I'm underrated or not," Cunningham said. "I just want to go out there and play my best. I'm not really focused on being the guy that they write headlines about. I just want to go out there and do my best and show what I can do."

Vanderbilt's second season under coach Derek Mason was a noticeable improvement from his maiden voyage in 2014, when the Commodores opened with a humiliating 37-7 home loss to Temple and went 0-8 in conference play. Last year's squad won SEC games against Missouri and Kentucky, and its 4-8 overall mark was quite close to 6-6 given the pair of two-point losses to Western Kentucky and Florida.

A 6-6 record would have sent Vanderbilt to a bowl game for a fourth time in five seasons, and a postseason berth is an obvious objective as Mason tries to get the program back to where it was under predecessor James Franklin, who went 24-15 from 2011 to '13.

"This is about being a more experienced squad in 2016," Mason said. "We're talking about 42 returning upperclassmen, juniors and seniors, who have gone through the maturation process and the fire, so to speak, in terms of what it takes to try to compete in this big-dog conference called the SEC."

The Commodores return eight starters on each side of the ball, and Mason has expressed his confidence in sophomore quarterback Kyle Shurmur, who played in just five games last season but threw for 209 yards and three touchdowns in the finale against Tennessee. Running back Ralph Webb is back for his junior season after rushing for 1,152 yards last year, and the receiving cast is deep — Darrius Sims, Trent Sherfield and Caleb Scott are back, and C.J. Duncan returns after missing last season with a lower leg injury.

Three starters are back up front, including senior right guard Barrett Gouger, who played at Baylor School.

Highlighting Vanderbilt's plethora of returning defensive starters in addition to Cunningham are redshirt junior tackle Adam Butler and an experienced secondary featuring cornerbacks Tre Herndon and Torren McGaster plus safeties Arnold Tarpley and Oren Burks. Herndon, a junior from East Hamilton High School, tallied 35 tackles and broke up four passes last season.

Vanderbilt was a competitive sixth last season in total defense (allowing 350.5 yards per game) and scoring defense (21.0 points per game) in the SEC but could have finished much higher had it not been for the closing 53-28 loss at Tennessee. The Volunteers rushed for an eye-popping 331 yards against the Commodores, who have not forgotten that outcome in the months since.

"That game was the perfect storm," Cunningham said. "That whole week, we didn't practice on a grass field, and the grass that day was muddy and wet. I think that played into it, and the offense they ran had a lot of different schemes. Although we looked at it, it was really different to go out and play against it.

"We were definitely proud of what we were able to accomplish for the season, but at the same time, we were disappointed with the way that one turned out. It was our last game and it was our rival, so that was not something we wanted to showcase."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.


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