Let’s lay the ground work for linebacker talk before doing anything else: linebackers are trained pigs. Linebackers are the reciprocate position for running backs. Much like running backs, linebackers have the sole purpose of getting to their assignment gap and making a play. Speed, power, agility and other athletic traits certainly help that process, but if a linebacker isn’t consistently making the right reads, the rest of his skill set is severely less valuable.
Vanderbilt’s Zach Cunningham is the best of both worlds. Not only does Cunningham have excellent recognition and aggression in the run game, he also has the athleticism to make stunning plays. Cunningham is the trained pig that a linebacker needs to be, but he’s got enough juice to make him more than that.
Zach Cunningham is a redshirt junior. Cunningham is currently listed at 6’4”, 230 pounds on Vanderbilt’s official website, though he is probably closer to the 215-220 pounds range. Last December, Cunningham turned 22 years old, which is fairly young for a player with his experience and accomplishments.
After sitting out the 2013 season as a practice squad player, Cunningham was a vital producer for Vanderbilt’s defense in the three following seasons. Cunningham was a solid rotational contributor in 2014, and eventually seized the starting job in 2015, where he quickly asserted himself as one of the best linebackers in the conference and did so again in 2016.
Stats courtesy of Sport-Reference.com
Cunningham is an intelligent linebacker. His first steps are always in the right direction and he plays with a heightened awareness of his surroundings. Those two traits alone are a great starting point for any linebacker, inside or outside. In addition to his smarts, Cunningham boasts the speed and power to make the most of his recognition skills.
As soon as the running back pauses to initiate his counter run, Cunningham begins flying downhill. The veteran linebacker closes quickly on the line of scrimmage and diminishes the chances of the offense having success on this play. What makes this play special, though, is how Cunningham approaches the tight end.
Many young linebackers would run full steam ahead into the tight end. That may still work, but it’s a reckless approach. Instead of going in willy nilly, Cunningham begins to shuffle step as the tight end approaches the point of attack. Cunningham sets up the tight end to initiate wide of the play at the last second, allowing the linebacker to stack-and-shed the tight end to get the inside track and take down the running back for a short gain.
Cunningham displayed his initial play recognition and his on-the-fly wittiness on this play. The game is never moving too fast for Cunningham; he is always one step ahead of the play, mentally and athletically.
Due to his slight frame, Cunningham is going to be pinned as a linebacker who needs to add strength, but that is not the case. Cunningham is powerful. He has impressive natural strength to compliment his sound approach to initiating contact.
On this play, Cunningham is lined up in the A-gap to the right of the center. The situation here was 3rd-and-2, so it’s fairly obvious that Cunningham was going to come crashing down, instead of fake the blitz and drop back.
Georgia is running a ‘wham’ play here, meaning the offensive line will slide one gap over toward the play side and one blocker (a tight end of a fullback) will flow across the backside of the formation to pick up the backside edge defender. The right guard is responsible for Cunningham on this play and, because of the situation, the guard should know Cunningham is going right at him.
Cunningham blows this play up regardless. Cunningham fires off the snap and drives into the right guard. At the point of attack, Cunningham gets low and steps forward with his inside foot, then shoots his hands up and through the guard’s frame, knocking the guard off balance. Cunningham then extends his arms to push the guard into the running lane, while Cunningham himself has a free arm to grab the running back if he chooses to cut the play back. With the running back being forced to take a slightly wider approach than he anticipated, one of Cunningham’s teammates is able to fill the running lane and stop the play short of the sticks.
This is legitimately a defensive tackle type of play from Cunningham. If a linebacker can show this level of strength and fortitude as an A-gap run defender in a tight situation, he’s a keeper.
Here’s an example of Cunningham taking on a block after starting from a more natural linebacker position. Note: This play is slowed down to 0.5x (half) speed.
Above all else, Cunningham’s recognition skills play a major role here. That’s not the focus of this play, though. Once Cunningham gets into position to make a proper play, he still has to be able to beat the oncoming offensive linemen. Cunningham, to no surprise, does.
Cunningham has insane pop in his hips. Again, he steps with his inside foot upon first contact, and drives up and through the blocker’s frame. All the while, Cunningham continues to properly reset his feet so as to put himself more in the way of the running back. Between the ground Cunningham covers himself and the ground that the blocker Cunningham has moved takes up, Cunningham has created a roadblock in front of the running back. Play over.
Linebackers have to be able to cover nowadays. The NFL is too pass-happy of a league for a defense to not have linebackers who can survive in coverage. Cunningham does not only survive in coverage, he excels.
Cunningham is lined up over the slot player. As the slot man moves up the field through his vertical stem, Cunningham jams him at about five yards past the line of scrimmage, ruining most of the momentum that the slot player had picked up by then. As the quarterback extends the play, Cunningham has to keep up with his assignment on a scramble drill.
Often times, this is where a linebacker will lose the play, but not Cunningham. Cunningham sticks tight with his man and makes a diving play on the ball to swat the pass to the ground. Few linebackers have enough athleticism to move and flow in coverage like this. Cunningham is a freaky athlete.
Not all coverage plays need to be down the field, though. Linebackers have to also be able to work the short area and be able to expand to the wider areas of the field. Note: This play is slowed down to 0.5x (half) speed.
Cunningham’s play recognition shows up again here. Immediately, Cunningham recognizes the swing route and begins to carefully flow toward the play. Cunningham takes a careful, over-the-top approach to the running back. While this may be too passive for some linebackers, Cunningham has the speed to get over the top quickly and adjust if he needs to, as opposed to having to gun straight for the running back.
Tackling is not Cunningham’s strong suit. Often times, Cunningham will aim too far behind the running back and end up having to arm tackle, which doesn’t always work out. In addition to his questionable tackling skills, Cunningham has a tendency to play too high and diminish his change of direction ability near the line of scrimmage.
To some degree, Cunningham’s imperfections can be glossed over. Linebackers’s issues most commonly show up at the second level, like Cunningham’s tackling, but linebackers who are always near the line of scrimmage can often mask their issues. Cunningham lives at the line of scrimmage, and often beats blockers and running backs to the play, so he tends to be able to win plays before his imperfections even have a chance to show up. Of course, his flaws are bound to pop up from time to time, but that is the case for any linebacker, and I can live with that when the linebacker is always pressing the line of scrimmage.
For reference, Atlanta Falcons rookie linebacker Deion Jones had similar issues, but like Cunningham, Jones was always attacking the line of scrimmage and making plays before he had a chance to mess up.
Zach Cunningham is a multi-faceted linebacker. He is smart and aggressive run defender, his skills in coverage are impressive, and, while it is not his best trait, he can blitz, if need be. Cunningham has a combination of athleticism and intelligence that is not often seen from players his age.
In many ways, Cunningham feels like a Nigel Bradham (Philadelphia Eagles) type of player. Bradham is a bit shorter and heftier, but Cunningham plays with the same speed, aggression, intelligence, power and coverage ability as Bradham, who had a great season in his first year with the Eagles. Unfortunately, Cunningham will catch comparisons to Alec Ogletree because of similar height and speed, but Cunningham’s power and intelligence puts Ogletree to shame.
Cunningham may not be the best linebacker in the class, but he’s a stud. His best fit is as an outside linebacker (preferably weak side) where he can cover tight ends in man coverage and work the flats in zone coverage, while being able to still aggressively play the run and chase down plays from the back side. If Cunningham falls to the Rams’s pick in the second round and they select him, he’d immediately be the best linebacker on the team.