Give Zach Cunningham a cape.
The Superman tag can be overblown in college football, but what the Vanderbilt linebacker did late in the fourth quarter against Auburn on Saturday at Jordan-Hare Stadium is worthy of the comparison. Cunningham timed the snap of a 36-yard field goal attempt by Tigers kicker Daniel Carlson so perfectly that the defender jumped over the center and blocked the kick with ease.
After Vanderbilt’s 23-16 loss, Cunningham explained what made his athletic display possible. Turns out, Cunningham picked up on Auburn’s cadence. From there, he let his instincts take over.
Here are more details, as relayed in a piece by VUCommodores.com’s Zac Ellis:
One hundred and one seconds remained in Saturday’s matchup between Vanderbilt and ninth-ranked Auburn at Jordan-Hare Stadium. The Tigers, leading 23-16 in the fourth quarter, took the field to attempt a late field goal, one that would give the home team a two-score cushion over the visiting Commodores. In that moment, amid 87,451 rowdy fans on the Plains, Vanderbilt linebacker Zach Cunningham noted something interesting as he lined up beside his teammates to defend Auburn’s kick.
“I noticed that the center had a cadence,” Cunningham said. “I went to the sideline and asked coach if I could jump over the center.”
Cunningham, Vanderbilt’s All-SEC linebacker, had been designated as the “jumper” on the special-teams unit, meaning his primary goal was to leap in the air and swat the ensuing kick. A player in Cunningham’s position usually jumps behind his own defensive line; using a teammate as a springboard, for instance, results in a penalty.
But Cunningham had other plans.
“He said, ‘Coach, do you want me to go over the top?’” Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason said. “I said, ‘Yes, if you find a crease, go get it.’
“That’s exactly what he did.”
As expected, Cunningham earned rave reviews from teammates after the game. Here’s some of the reaction, as captured in a story by The Tennessean’s Adam Sparks:
True to the rule, Cunningham, a 6-foot-4, 230-pounder, perfectly timed his jump to the snap count and completely cleared every Auburn lineman without making contact.
“I’m not surprised by anything anymore. The kid is just unbelievable,” teammate C.J. Duncan said. “He’s just a heck of an athlete. He shows up when we need it.”
On Sunday, Commodores running back Ralph Webb chimed in about the play, labeling Cunningham the “greatest of all-time”:
Zach Cunningham is the GOAT.
— I Am R.A.W. (@TurnUpWebb) November 6, 2016
Is this the best special-teams play of the season in the SEC? It’s easy to make the case. The play included a certain “wow” factor, and it gave Vanderbilt a chance to tie the game late. (The Commodores’ final drive ended in an interception by quarterback Kyle Shurmur.)
This much is known: On Saturday, Superman was seen on Vanderbilt’s sideline.