War Eagle Extra

Former Auburn recruiting target Zach Cunningham has chance to spoil program’s resurgence

Vanderbilt linebacker Zach Cunningham plays against Florida in Nashville, Tenn on Oct. 1, 2016.
Vanderbilt linebacker Zach Cunningham plays against Florida in Nashville, Tenn on Oct. 1, 2016. AP

Auburn’s coaching staff spoke glowingly of Vanderbilt linebacker Zach Cunningham this week.

Coach Gus Malzahn called the fourth-year junior making a visit to the Plains this weekend one of the most talented in defenders in the SEC.

The compliments are a few years too late.

Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee heavily recruited the Pinson Valley High School alum out of the Birmingham area during their lone season at Arkansas St.

They remained interested in Cunningham when hired at Auburn, but the coaching staff was reluctant to offer him one of their final scholarships.

“I guess that kind of rubbed me the wrong way,” Cunningham said on National Signing Day three years ago.

Cunningham picked Vanderbilt over Auburn, Tennessee and Oregon.

“I think even Ellis and that staff really recruited him,” Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said this week. “I don’t know how it all ended up, but he obviously ended up at Vanderbilt. We knew he was a really good player, long, very athletic and a great young man. Smart kid, very high character kid.”

Malzahn said his staff had to make some tough decisions in the turbulent month between accepting the job and their first signing day.

“We had four weeks to figure out what we had and what we didn't have,” Malzahn said. “There were some linebacker commitments we already had and we were trying to hold onto. It was kind of one of those things, we did talk to him, but it was such a tough turnaround with a new staff.”

Pro Football Focus, one of the country’s leading analytic websites, was an earlier believer in Cunningham.

The website labeled the linebacker one of the most under-rated defenders in the country in a preseason story titled, “Vanderbilt’s Zach Cunningham is the best LB you haven’t heard of.”

“His size and athleticism compare favorably to the best SEC linebackers, and his on-field performance matches up just as well,” Steve Palazzolo wrote.

The 6-foot-4, 230-pounder has 85 tackles, 41 solo, through eight games and is second in the conference with 13.5 tackles for a loss.

Last week, Cunningham was named one of the semi-finalists for the Chuck Bednarik Award, for the nation’s top defensive player, and Butkus Award, for the top linebacker.

Cunningham gained additional notoriety in October when he made a game-saving play in Vanderbilt’s 17-16 upset over Georgia, a play Lashlee described as “phenomenal.

The linebacker tackled Georgia running back Isaiah McKenzie on fourth-and-1 in the final minute with the Commodores clinging to a one-point lead.

McKenzie looked like he had the first down, but Cunningham chased the running back down from behind and in an impressive display of strength yanked him backwards away from the first down marker to seal the win.

“I know for a fact he’s a stud,” Lashlee said.

Instead of watching Cunningham come out of the tunnel wearing burnt orange and navy blue, the linebacker will be trying to show Malzahn and Lashlee what they missed out on.

Michael Niziolek: 334-332-8572, @wareagleextra