AUBURN, Ala. — When Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee and head coach Gus Malzahn gameplan for Vanderbilt’s defense this week, they’ll circle a Commodore who is quite familiar to them.
A few years before Vanderbilt star linebacker Zach Cunningham became the SEC’s leading tackler — he has 85 tackles and counting in 2016 — he was a 4-star prospect from Pinson, Ala. who had Lashlee and Malzahn’s attention.
“I was recruiting him when we were at Arkansas State,” Lashlee said earlier this week. “His senior year was the year we got the job here. I think even (former Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson) and that staff really recruited him. … We knew he was a really good player. He’s long, very athletic, great young man. Smart kid, high-character kid.”
Cunningham is the heart and soul of a Vanderbilt defense that ranks No. 2 in the SEC in scoring defense (15.5 points allowed per game) and No. 3 in the SEC in total defense (4.61 yards allowed per play) against conference opponents.
In their four conference games this season, the Commodores have allowed 13, 13, 20 and 16 points. The final game in that list was a 17-16 win over Georgia that was capped by a fourth-down stop from Cunningham, who had 19 tackles on the day.
The former Malzahn recruit is second in the SEC in tackles for loss with 13.5. He recorded at least one stop in the backfield in every game this season.
“I love the way he plays. I mean, Zach Cunningham is one of the better defensive players in our league,” Malzahn said. “He’s very impressive the way he comes off blocks. He sheds blocks and makes play as good as any linebacker in our league.
“They got other good players too now — it’s not just him. They got, in my opinion, four or five other really, really good defensive players.”
After three straight SEC wins against opponents who have struggled defensively against conference opponents, Auburn turns its attention to a Vanderbilt defense that does a good job of keeping teams out of the end zone.
Opponents have only generated 10 plays of 30-plus yards in eight games against Vanderbilt, which is tied for sixth nationally in that category. The Commodores also rank inside the Top 25 nationally in red-zone defense.
“They have a great defense,” Auburn H-back Chandler Cox said Tuesday. “That kind of stands out to me. Just the linebackers … their D-linemen have good push on the offensive line. I think that’s what helps a team out. So, I mean, it’s going to be tough. It’s not going to be easy.”
Malzahn picked up wins over fellow offensive innovators Dan Mullen and Hugh Freeze in recent weeks. But Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason is such a defensive mind that he also calls plays on that side of the ball for the Commodores.
“He’s a very good football coach,” Malzahn said. “You can see the way his team plays. They’re tough guys. They play extremely hard. They play team defense. That’s what really stands out to me. They fly to the ball. They tackle well and they play physical, especially at the line of scrimmage.”
While there might be a danger of the Tigers looking past the 4-4 Commodores in the early kickoff slot this Saturday, Malzahn said he won’t let that happen.
After all, this is the Vanderbilt team that beat the rival many around the Plains are looking ahead to next weekend.
“They beat Georgia at Georgia,” Malzahn said. “They played Florida down to the very end. A very good football team. They have our full attention.”