Zach Cunningham’s got hops.
He’s also got football IQ, head coach Derek Mason said. And is a selfless teammate, he added. A hard worker, too.
It culminated as the redshirt junior linebacker soared over the Auburn offensive line and blocked the kick the Tigers were attempting in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s game.
Holy moly Zach Cunningham. pic.twitter.com/26Sf91nZXc
— Ty Wurth (@WurthDraft) November 5, 2016
It was the first time Cunningham had attempted such a play in a game — or practice. It had been discussed with senior defensive assistant Osia Lewis but never come to fruition. Until Cunningham approached the coach before Auburn lined up to attempt the 36-yard kick.
“You have to trust players,” Mason said on the SEC coaches teleconference Wednesday. “When the opportunity came up, Zach asked and Coach Lewis hinted on the headphones, obviously we went with it.”
Although the blocked kick certainly is what Cunningham will be known for nationally, he has grown into one of the premier defenders in the SEC. He is the conference leader in tackles — his 94 are 34 more than the next Commodore and nine more than anyone else in the SEC — with 13.5 going for a loss.
But is he the best defender in a conference full of elite ones? Ones such as Alabama’s Jonathan Allen and Minkah Fitzpatrick, Tennessee’s Derek Barnett and Florida’s Jalen Tabor, to name a few?
Mason thinks so.
“In my opinion, he’s the best defensive player in the SEC,” he said. “He’s an All-American. There’s no if and or but about it. He just continues to play big every opportunity he gets.”