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Vanderbilt linebacker Zach Cunningham making a name for himself

Vanderbilt linebacker Zach Cunningham helped make the Commodores one of the most efficient defenses in the SEC last season. Rob Foldy/Getty Images

The SEC's defensive statistical leaderboard is loaded with sophomores whose names you probably know.

Texas A&M's Myles Garrett, Armani Watts and Donovan Wilson. Missouri's Charles Harris. Tennessee's Derek Barnett. Ole Miss' Marquis Haynes. LSU's Jamal Adams. Florida's Jalen Tabor.

But as you pore through the various categories, a name that might not be so familiar pops up again and again: that of Vanderbilt linebacker Zach Cunningham. If the sophomore weakside linebacker's name doesn't ring a bell yet, it will soon.

"Zach Cunningham may be the best linebacker I've ever had the opportunity to coach in this structure of defense," Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason said. "I'm not trying to talk him up because he's on my team. He can match in coverage, he's a sideline-to-sideline player, he has tremendous strength and he's instinctive as all get out."

Entering Saturday's game against Texas A&M (7-3, 3-3 SEC), Cunningham has legitimately emerged as one of the SEC's top defensive playmakers. He's tied for 10th in the conference with 79 tackles, tied for third in both tackles for loss (13.5) and forced fumbles (three), and he's recovered more fumbles (three) than any SEC defender. In fact, he's tied for second nationally in that department.

And he's done all of that despite not becoming a full-time starter until Game 5 against Middle Tennessee, although Cunningham's playing time increased considerably once the Commodores lost starter Nigel Bowden for the season in Week 2.

"No matter who he's playing against the speed of the game is never too fast, he's always around the ball, making something happen, and with his instincts, he can get himself out of bad body positions unlike anybody I've been able to coach -- and I've had some good ones," Mason said.

In the six games since MTSU, Cunningham has averaged 9.8 tackles per game, has recorded at least one TFL in all but one game and nearly carried the Commodores (4-6, 2-4) to an upset against SEC East champ Florida by totaling 10 tackles, two TFLs, a sack and two fumble recoveries against the Gators.

"I would say the game that kind of sparked it all would be either the Middle Tennessee game or the Ole Miss game (where he made 11 tackles and 1.5 TFLs)," Cunningham said. "That put me in my zone and made me feel like I could be a big player for the defense and that I could have something to offer."

The point where Mason knew Cunningham could do the job came much earlier -- last season, in fact. It was in last season's game against Georgia, when the then-redshirt freshman single-handedly took down the Bulldogs' star running back Todd Gurley.

"You go back and watch Georgia last year and the only person who was able to get Gurley down one-on-one was Zach Cunningham, and he did it four times," Mason said. "There are dudes in the NFL who can't get the dude on the ground."

Bowl eligibility is not out of the question for the Commodores, but they will need to beat Texas A&M and Tennessee to get there. Even if they miss out on the postseason, their suddenly rock-solid defense has become the cornerstone of the Vanderbilt program under second-year coach Mason.

The Commodores have won two of their last three SEC games and nearly knocked off Florida, surrendering 9.6 ppg in those three conference games. Those wins against Missouri and Kentucky were Mason's first against SEC opposition.

"We definitely see it as progress," Cunningham said. "We're looking forward to a great time for us, where going into the future, we have a lot of potential to be one of those top teams."

Vandy certainly has that potential at linebacker. The Commodores will lose senior Darreon Herring after the season, but they should have a healthy Bowden, plus Cunningham, Stephen Weatherly, Nehemiah Mitchell and Landon Stokes back in 2016. That group could legitimately rank among the SEC's best collections of linebacker talent next season.

In fact, Cunningham believes the Commodores are prepared to creep up the SEC standings in Year 3 under Mason, who struggled mightily in his debut year only to leverage his defensive prowess and make Vandy a much more competitive program in 2015.

"Nobody's going to be expecting it, but I think we're going to be one of those teams that surprises everybody," he said.