Vanderbilt’s Zach Cunningham: Team Defense Personified

In order for Vanderbilt to take another leap into contention for the SEC crown they’ll need another strong performance from their defense, which is anchored by Zach Cunningham. Mark Schofield breaks down the linebacker to highlight his traits and how he fits into the Commodores’ defensive schemes. 

Under third-year head coach David Mason, the Vanderbilt Commodores are developing a strong defensive mindset. Mason assumed the duties of Head Coach in Nashville for the 2014 season after three seasons as the Defensive Coordinator at Stanford. His first year in the Southeastern Conference brought some bumps and bruises, as the Commodores finished 3-9 and failed to win a game in conference. Prior to last year, Mason took over the duties of DC as well, and the defense displayed a noticeable jump in ability and execution. The unit surrendered a whopping 33.3 points per game in 2014, but cut that number to 21.0 ppg last season – good for 21st overall in the Football Bowl Subdivision. This group was also 33rd against the run in the FBS, giving up 143.2 yards per game, and finished the season 28th in defense, giving up an average of 350.0 yards per game.

There were two big reasons for the improvement: Mason’s tutelage and the play from sophomore linebacker Zach Cunningham. The LB tallied 103 tackles, the first time a Vanderbilt defender surpassed 100 tackles in a season since 2009.

When watching Cunningham in action, a number of traits stand out: Recognition, awareness, recovery, and explosion all come to mind. From evading cut blocks to setting the edge as a force defender, to reading a gap and filling a running lane in a short yardage situation, the LB displays the attributes of a linebacker functioning within the scheme. If the Commodores are to get back to a bowl game, Cunningham will play a very big role.

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Coverage

Linebackers must be able to help in underneath coverage, whether handling running backs and tight ends in man coverage schemes, or sinking under or staying with crossing routes when facing concepts such as drive or mesh. Linebackers must demonstrate spatial awareness, play speed, and athletic ability in these situations. On this play against Texas A&M, the Aggies face a 2nd and 20 and quarterback Kyle Allen (#10) stands in the shotgun with 10 personnel on the field and dual slot formations. Cunningham (#41) is on the left side of Vanderbilt’s 3-3-5 defense:


TAMU runs the mesh concept on this snap, while the Commodores run a Cover 3 combination coverage scheme, with the middle linebacker coming on a green dog through the A Gap:

CunninghamStill2As the play starts, the slot receiver to Cunningham’s left starts his crossing route, and the linebacker stays on that WR. But when the two receivers cross on the mesh, Cunningham does a solid job of staying in his zone and picking up the crossing route coming from his left:

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Allen is forced to check the football down under duress because of the green dog, and Cunningham rotates over to the running back to help on the tackle.

Later in the game against the Aggies, Cunningham and the Commodores face the mesh concept once more. Again, the linebacker shows great awareness as he stays in his zone and passes off the crossing route from his right:

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Cunningham picks up the crosser coming from his left and, while the throw is completed, the linebacker forces the receiver out of bounds well short of the first-down marker.

Cunningham also displays the ability to fight through traffic and rotate to receivers out of the backfield when in man coverage. Offenses design route schemes to exploit man coverage by creating traffic in the interior and then releasing a tight end or a running back to the outside, hoping that a LB gets swallowed up by the bodies inside. The Tennessee Volunteers try this concept on this next play, running the mesh concept. Only this time, the defense is in its base 3-4, and is blitzing the outside linebacker on Cunningham’s side of the field, playing Cover 1 behind the blitz:

CunninghamStill4The Volunteers have a great wrinkle to this mesh, with running back Jalen Hurd (#1) running a wheel route toward the three receiver side of the field. The release from the TE and the mesh will create traffic on the inside, opening up room for the wheel route.

In this Cover 1 scheme, Cunningham is responsible for the No. 2 receiver on the left, which in this case is tight end Ethan Wolfe (#82). As the play develops, the No. 1 receiver pulls the cornerback to the inside on the crossing route. The TE releases vertically and makes contact with Cunningham about six yards downfield:

CunninghamStill5The LB works off the contact from Wolfe and rotates over to the wheel route from the running back:

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The awareness and recovery here from Cunningham prevents a big play. The linebacker is able to get just enough of his fingers on the pass to force an incompletion.

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Awareness and Explosion

Another aspect of awareness at the linebacker position is the ability to quickly diagnose a hole and fill that spot against the run. How quickly the defender can read his keys and fill the hole is often the difference between no gain and a big play for the offense. But making a quick read of the play is only one aspect. A linebacker can be extremely cognizant of his keys in the running game, reading the interior line and diagnosing the play, but if he doesn’t have the physical ability to hit the hole, the offense can break off a big run.

Cunningham has both the recognition and the physicality in his tool kit.

The mental awareness should come as no surprise, given how much Mason stresses the visual and mental aspects of playing defense. The Vanderbilt Head Coach gave a presentation at the 2016 Nike Coaches’ Clinic and outlined various items that he stresses when coaching defensive football. Chief among them was how a defender reads his keys:

It does not matter if you are a corner, safety, linebacker, or defensive linemen. They all must use their eyes and have the proper progression of what they see. They cannot run wildly chasing something until they confirm they are right in what the eyes see.

A defender cannot play with his eyes down. If he does he is getting in a position to get hurt. He has to play with his eyes up so he can protect himself. He must have his eyes up to do what his keys tell him to do. (2016 Nike Coaches’ Clinic Manual, 179)

Let’s see both concepts, the mental and the physical, in action. On this play against TAMU, the Aggies have the football and face a 3rd and 2 on the Commodores’ 39-yard line in a one-score game late in the second quarter. TAMU has Allen in the shotgun and 11 personnel in the game, with a pro formation on the left and slot formation to the right. Vanderbilt has its base 3-4 defense in for this play showing Cover 1:

CunninghamStill6Look at Cunningham’s alignment. He is set toward the passing strength of the offense, on the side of the field with the slot formation. The LB also stands six yards off the line of scrimmage.

The Aggies run an inside zone play here. Watch as Cunningham diagnoses the play and explodes forward:

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Running back Tra Carson (#5) takes the handoff and bends toward the right B Gap. Cunningham, starting six yards behind the line of scrimmage, diagnoses the run immediately and bolts forward. He meets the RB right near the line of scrimmage and, even with forward progress, Carson fails to pick up the first down. The Aggies would fail to move the chains on the next play, giving the football back to Vanderbilt.

A few plays later, Cunningham diagnoses and explodes once more, holding Carson to another one-yard gain:

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This next play is from Vanderbilt’s game against Tennessee. The Volunteers have the football on their own 7-yard line and face a 1st and 10 early in the second quarter. The offense lines up with 11 personnel and quarterback Joshua Dobbs (#11) in the shotgun. Tennessee has a stack-slot look to the right, with the receivers split very wide, and a single receiver split to the left. Wolfe aligns in the wing to the right. The Commodores have their base 3-4 defense in for this snap, and they show Cover 1. Cunningham aligns as the weak inside linebacker:


Tennessee runs a counter trey on this play, pulling both the right guard and Wolfe to the left side:


Watch Cunningham on this snap:The linebacker diagnoses the play immediately and meets the TE in the hole, showing his play strength as he stacks and sheds the blocker to make the tackle:

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Plays like these make it obvious how Cunningham became Vanderbilt’s first 100+ tackle player since the 2009 season.

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Team Defense

This next play is also an example of awareness and recognition in the running game, but it is the first of a few examples of team defense that we will highlight from Cunningham. It also comes from the second quarter of Vanderbilt’s game against TAMU. The Aggies, thanks to a long touchdown pass followed by an interception, now have a 13-point lead and the football inside the Commodores’ 20-yard line. They line up with 10 personnel in a trips right formation. Vanderbilt has its 3-3-5 defense in the game, with Cunningham aligned as the weakside linebacker and the secondary set up in Cover 4:

CunninghamStill10Before breaking down this play, a few words on how Mason stresses run defense: “East-West never North-South.” As the coach outlined:

You must force teams to go east and west with the ball. You must be strong inside and bounce the ball to the outside. If you can get the ball going east and west, your pursuit will run it down. The ball must go sideways and not downhill. If a team runs a triple option scheme, stop the inside run. If they can run it inside, you cannot stop the option. Stop the inside run and the pursuit will stop the ball going east and west.

If the plan is to force the ball east and west, you must know who is playing the ball outside. You must be clear as to who the primary support is and who the secondary support is. In run support, the structure of the defense must be very clear as to which players are inside/out and which ones are outside/in. If you give your players visual references, that will give them a chance to play good defense. (Ibid., 181-182)

With these rules in mind, we return to the play at hand. The Commodores play straight Cover 4 here, which means in Mason’s scheme Cunningham is the weakside “bounce,” or “inside / out” defender. The cornerback to that side is in a zone scheme, so against the run he is the “force” or “outside/in” defender. The linebacker knows he will have help to the outside, so he will attack any run in his direction and try and force it east-west, knowing he has help to either side:

CunninghamStill11TAMU runs the buck sweep to Cunningham’s side of the field. The linebacker beats the pulling guard to the edge, but then forces the running back to the outside where he knows help is coming:

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Cunningham makes the tackle, but the weakside CB is there just in case.

On the flip side, there are moments in Mason’s scheme where a linebacker becomes the force defender against the run, and must take an “outside / in” route to the ball carrier. Should the LB fail in this responsibility, the offense has a chance for a huge play. Here against TAMU, the Aggies have the football and a 16-point lead with over nine minutes remaining in the third quarter. The offense lines up using 10 personnel, with trips to the left and the QB in the shotgun. Vanderbilt’s 4-2-5 nickel package is in the game, and Cunningham is the WLB:


The Commodores employ a Cover 3 matching scheme here, and the cornerback to Cunningham’s side of the field is in man coverage on the single receiver to that side of the field. This means that against the run, Cunningham cannot count on help from the outside, and he becomes the force or “outside/in” defender against the run:

CunninghamStill13The Aggies run a power sweep to Cunningham’s side of the field, with left guard Keaton Sutherland (#78) immediately working to the second level to block the MLB while center Mike Matthews (#56) pulls to the right edge:


Cunningham, knowing his role, heads to the edge with one goal in mind: Force the running back to the inside. The linebacker beats Matthews to the edge but, rather than cutting behind the center to try and make the tackle, he takes on the blocker from the outside/in:

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Cunningham does his job, forcing the RB toward defensive help. The run goes for an eight-yard gain, but the linebacker does exactly what he was coached to do.

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Putting It Together In The Shadow of Your Own Goalposts

Finally, just because goal line stands are so badass:

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This is a huge play that puts all the factors discussed – awareness, recognition, explosiveness, play strength, and team defense –together. Tennessee has the football on the Commodores’ 1-yard line and, with a 13-point lead, the Volunteers are looking to break the game open early in the third quarter.

The offense runs Hurd on the inside, but Cunningham reads his keys and immediately fills the hole, meeting the ball carrier before the goal line:

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Everything that has been discussed is on display and during a big moment for his team.

Vanderbilt faces an uphill road to get to a bowl game, but their already improved defense expects to take another big leap forward in 2016, with Cunningham leading the way.

Follow @MarkSchofield on Twitter.  Buy his book, 17 Drives.  Check out his other work here, such as how Alabama passes to attack the flat, or Tennessee’s use of the double post concept, or how LSU runs play action.

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All film courtesy of DraftBreakdown.

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