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The secret's out: Vandy's Zach Cunningham emerges as a national star

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Vanderbilt stops Georgia on fourth-and-1 to secure upset victory (0:34)

Isaiah McKenzie gets stuffed on fourth-and-1 to lock up a 17-16 Vanderbilt victory over Georgia. (0:34)

If there's such a thing as a virtuoso on the football field, Vanderbilt's Zach Cunningham is your guy. He plays the game so naturally, so instinctively and so consistently.

The 6-4, 230-pound redshirt junior linebacker misses tackles the way Eric Clapton misses notes on his guitar.

It doesn't happen.

Fittingly, Cunningham plays a little guitar himself, going back to his youth at Birmingham's New Life Evangelistic Worship Center. He taught himself to play and has since taken a few guitar classes at Vanderbilt. He prefers what he calls "jazz type stuff" but can play a little bit of everything.

As humble as he is talented, Cunningham doesn't hesitate when asked whether he's a better football player or guitar player.

"Football, for sure," he says.

It's doubtful anybody who's tried to block him this season would disagree, regardless of whether they've heard him play the guitar. That's because Cunningham has been unblockable. He wrecked just about everything Georgia attempted to do last week with a career-high 19 tackles in Vanderbilt's 17-16 win over the Bulldogs, the Commodores' first win at Sanford Stadium in a decade.

His fourth-down stop of Isaiah McKenzie for no gain to preserve the win is the kind of play Cunningham has been making since he was a gangly 175-pound linebacker at Pinson Valley High School just outside of Birmingham, Alabama.

"I've been seeing him do that forever," said Pinson Valley coach Matt Glover. "I once saw him take the quarterback, then the fullback with one arm and still get out to the pitch man to make the play. The funny thing is that when he first came to me, he was a running back and we had to talk him into playing linebacker. He didn't like it at first, but looks like he made the right decision."

There might be bigger names on the defensive side in college football, and there might be flashier players who get more headlines. But good luck in finding a more complete (or productive) defender than Cunningham, who ranks fourth nationally with 81 total tackles and second nationally with 13 tackles for loss. Against SEC competition, he's been even better with 55 total tackles and nine tackles for loss in four league games.

"Go back and watch that last play against Georgia, and you don't even see Zach in the picture," Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason marveled. "All of a sudden, you see a blur and a snatch. You look up and you're like, 'Where did he come from?' You don't coach that.

"He's the best linebacker nobody's talking about."

In truth, they're talking about him, just not as much as they probably should be. One NFL scout told ESPN.com Cunningham had shown the versatility to play in a 3-4 or 4-3 scheme at the next level and was moving up draft boards weekly because of his "ability to make plays sideline to sideline." The pro scouts also love Cunningham's length, and even though he's already put on 50 pounds since his high school days, he has the frame to put on 10 or 20 more.

Cunningham redshirted his first year at Vanderbilt in 2013, but it didn't take him long to make an impression on Mason. During their first season together in 2014, Vanderbilt was playing Georgia, and Cunningham on three occasions tackled Todd Gurley in one-on-one situations.

"It was Zach and Gurley one-on-one. It wasn't Zach and somebody else and Gurley, just Zach, and he made the play all three times," Mason recalled. "Guys in the NFL don't tackle Gurley in that situation, and it made me realize how special this young man can be. He sees things before they happen and has so many dimensions to him as a player, but what separates him is his ability to close and finish."

Cunningham, who's majoring in economics, credits Mason and his inside linebackers coach, Chris Marve, for helping him to become a better tactician and better student of the game.

"I watch film differently than I used to and have a lot more knowledge of the game and what offenses are trying to do," said Cunningham, who was a first-team All-SEC performer last season. "They've helped bring more knowledge to me, and that's helped me play even faster and pick up quicker on what teams are trying to do."

Marve, who was also an All-SEC linebacker at Vanderbilt, said it's always easier to coach someone who's as passionate about the game as Cunningham.

"He's in love with the game of football, and you see that every day in the way he prepares," Marve said. "He's always putting in extra time, but he also does a lot of things naturally that you don't see in a lot of players. You hear guys say they want to be great. Zach practices that way and approaches every game that way."

Vanderbilt has had a ton of success with players from the state of Alabama. Earl Bennett, Zac Stacy, Jordan Matthews and Reshard Langford all come to mind. Cunningham also managed to get out of the state and signed as part of James Franklin's last class at Vanderbilt before Franklin left for Penn State.

Glover said he's never seen a player blow up in recruiting circles the way Cunningham did his senior year. He was still 17 when he graduated high school, and it wasn't until the eighth game of his senior season that he received his first SEC offer. The offers came flooding in after that, and Cunningham had Miami, Oregon, South Carolina and Tennessee all hot on his trail, along with Vanderbilt.

Alabama and Nick Saban were interested, but the Crimson Tide wanted Cunningham to grayshirt -- waiting a semester to enroll -- and take that time to bulk up and get stronger. Auburn offered initially, but in the transition from Gene Chizik to Gus Malzahn, Glover said the Tigers informed him late that they were pulling the scholarship offer because they only had one left at linebacker and were saving it for Reuben Foster.

The frenzy in the final hour didn't faze Cunningham, who wasn't a big name entering his senior season because he didn't spend the summer going to all of the camps and combines. Besides, he and his family had already set their sights on Vanderbilt and the world-class education the Commodores could offer.

"I just felt like I would develop more fully as a player and a person at Vanderbilt," Cunningham said. "I fell in love with everything about Vanderbilt. It was more than just football."

He concedes that being an economics major at Vanderbilt keeps him up late at nights studying but added, "I kind of knew what I was getting myself into. I'd talked to some guys who had majored in economics here before me and knew what was coming my way, but I wanted the challenge."

What he doesn't want is engaging in any debate about where he ranks in the SEC or nationally with other linebackers. He'll leave that for everybody else.

"I don't really focus on stuff like that," Cunningham said. "I'm more focused on going out there and doing my best to help my team win."

But, then, that's vintage Cunningham, the same guy who as a senior in high school got up to speak at the Mr. Football awards banquet in Montgomery, Alabama, and one of the first people he thanked was his home economics teacher for letting him borrow an iron to iron his shirt.

"I've coached a lot of good ones," Mason said, "but Zach is one of those guys who makes a lot of things right."

And that's whether he's blowing up a play on fourth down or blowing it out on his guitar.