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Vandy LB Zach Cunningham Ready to Make Leap to NFL


INDIANAPOLIS — Vanderbilt linebacker Zach Cunningham plays the guitar.

He'd love to remain in the Music City for his NFL career.

"I think that would probably be pretty cool," Cunningham, with a smile, said from the NFL Combine on Saturday. "I sat down with (the Titans) and we discussed my background, my family, and everything I've done at Vanderbilt, how I felt about that. It would definitely be something that would be pretty cool, to be able to stay in Nashville."

Cunningham said he's met with the Titans here this week. NFL teams are allowed to conduct 60 official interviews with players at the combine, but that doesn't count informal conversations. During the draft process, teams do their homework on every player.

Plenty of other teams are interested in Cunningham as well.

There's no doubt Cunningham is an interesting prospect, a big-time player who made all kinds of noise in Nashville, not just with his guitar. Cunningham plays mostly R&B or soul music, by the way, and considers himself to be a "decent" guitar player. He's a big fan of John Legend.

"I get pretty good feedback,'' he said.

Titans general manager Jon Robinson has liked what he's seen from Cunningham on the field.

"Zach is really an athletic guy,'' Robinson said. "He is a fast guy. He is a rangy player. He's a good football player."

In 2016, Cunningham became the first Commodore player in team history to earn unanimous first team All-America honors. He was a first team an All-SEC performer, and among the five finalist for the Butkus Award, given annually to the nation's top linebacker.

Cunningham finished the season as the SEC's leading tackler with 125 (9.6 per game). He made a game-clinching, fourth down tackle in a win at Georgia, and blocked a field goal in remarkable fashion – hurdling the line – in a near upset of Auburn. He averaged 11.1 tackles against Vanderbilt's eight SEC opponents.

NFL Network's Mike Mayock has Cunningham rated the No.3 inside linebacker in this year's draft, behind Alabama's Rueben Foster and Temple's Haason Reddick. Mayock on Saturday said Sunday is a "big day" for Cunningham, who will go through drills before NFL scouts. Most analysts believe he's best suited as an inside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme like the Titans but he's played in the 4-3 before, too.

"He's fast, and he's big fast," NFL draft analyst Mike Detillier, editor and publisher of Mike Detillier Draft Report, said of the 6-foot-3, 234-pound Cunningham. "My comparison would be Don't'a Hightower out of Alabama. I think there's a lot of similarities in both players, and how they play the game. And he's been a really good player with the Patriots."

"He's a 20s pick in round 1, a really good athlete who has played in the middle," Detillier continued. "There is some divided opinion on where he'll play in the NFL. Some people feel he's better off on the edge. I think he's ideal fit for a 3-4 inside linebacker. I think the big question mark with him will be: How well he can cover? In the NFL, it is the biggest question mark for every linebacker coming out. You have to be able to cover the running backs, and tight ends 1-on-1 downfield. But he is instinctive, real smart, real physical, is a good tackler, and he doesn't take a lot of false steps to the ball. He makes quick reads. Just look at production, and he's produced as a high level."

Cunningham said on Saturday he considered returning to Vanderbilt for his senior season. In 2016, Vanderbilt finished with a 6-6 regular season mark, which included a win over state rival Tennessee, and a bowl trip.

"I was thinking about coming back to Vandy for a long time and part of that was how invested I was in the program, and how committed I was," he said. "I felt like things were making a turn towards the right direction, and I still wanted to be a part of that. What drove my decision is I wanted to be able to take care of my family. We've had a lot of issues come up in the past few years I wanted to be able to help with."

Now, he's ready to make the leap to the NFL.

He hopes it's as successful as that memorable leap over the line of scrimmage at Auburn.

"I feel like my talent as a player has been overlooked, but that is not something that really bothers or gets to me. I just want to go out there and have fun and do the best I can do,'' Cunningham said.

"Whatever team that I get drafted to, I am coming in ready to make a difference, ready to be a starter on that team. I'll be ready to play."

Titans GM Jon Robinson, head coach Mike Mularkey make their media rounds at the 2017 NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. (Photos: Gary Glenn)

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