Vanderbilt linebacker Zach Cunningham delivered blow after blow for the Commodores in 2016. Thanks to his departure for the NFL, Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason and the defense are now tasked with softening the blow of his departure.
Cunningham was a do-it-all linebacker for Vanderbilt and made his fair share of well-timed tackles and game-changing stops and even delivered a blocked field goal. After registering 71 tackles and 16.5 tackles for loss, Cunningham opted to forgo his senior season and is now a Houston Texan.
Cunningham’s decision leaves quite a challenge back in Nashville for Mason and Company, but according to the Commodores head coach, the team understands it’s not just one person who will be asked to fill the hole he leaves.
“We say Oren Burks is the guy (because) he's moving into that role (at linebacker), But it's not just Oren Burks. It's what is going to happen up front,” Mason said. “Zach Cunningham enjoyed the luxury of playing behind some guys up front that were pretty solid and pretty productive. Zach's a great player in his own right, but as I look at it, this defense is never about one guy, one player.”
While Burks won’t have to carry the entire load, many will look to him to follow in the footsteps of his former teammate.
Burks said he remembered joining Cunningham as part of the Commodores program and taking the mentality that it was a chance to really make some noise. Burks stood alongside Cunningham in the middle of a stingy Commodores defense in 2016 and saw firsthand how productive the team’s one-man wrecking crew was.
It has Burks and other Commodores defenders believing they can do the same thing.
“I think it just breeds confidence in the defense,” Burks said. “You see he was able to do that and see he was so effective in the same scheme. We have the tools to do it: It’s about buckling down, sacrificing, putting in the work and just getting it done at the end of the day.”
Burks said spring was pivotal for the defense’s development, as they were able to effectively train and study the playbook for the coming season. The summer months will be just as crucial for a Commodores team that starts the season with a dangerous Middle Tennessee squad.
Cunningham delivered plenty of highlights for Vanderbilt last season, but the Commodores do return seven of their top 10 tacklers. Mason would have been thrilled to have Cunningham suit up for one more season, but in his eyes, there’s no excuse for the defense to take a step back.
“This defense will be stout,” Mason said. “We'll get after people, and it should look better in 2017, no doubt.”
Jordan D. Hill: 770-894-9818, @lesports