Mason: Vandy's Cunningham best defender in college football

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason has no doubt who should be the Southeastern Conference's defensive player of the year.

Yes, he's a little biased. Then again, Mason is watching junior linebacker Zach Cunningham turn in highlight-reel plays each week. Cunningham's latest performance included perfectly timing a leap over the center to block a field goal and give Vanderbilt one final chance before losing 23-16 at then-No. 11 Auburn last week.

Mason said Tuesday he's never seen such a play, which had Auburn Tigers hopelessly looking for a flag because Cunningham must have had to jump offside to slam the football straight down as if spiking it off the block. Maybe a lesser player would have needed an early jump, but Cunningham didn't.

Mason said he never parades players around lobbying for honors but what Cunningham has done for the Commodores and in big games sets him apart.

''If you can find a better defensive player in the SEC or in college football, show him to me,'' Mason said.

The 6-foot-4, 240-pound junior leads the SEC with 94 tackles and is second with 13 + tackles for loss, just one behind Tennessee's Derek Barnett. Cunningham was named the SEC defensive player of the week after a career-high 19 tackles Oct. 15 in an upset at Georgia, including a fourth-and-1 stop that clinched the Commodores' victory.

Cunningham's play features such impressive exploits that his teammates love watching him on game tape. Mason said Cunningham's intelligence reminds him of a previous player he helped coach while at Stanford, who's now in the NFL with Seattle.

''Richard Sherman was one of the smartest players I've ever coached,'' Mason said. ''I think Zach falls into that realm of guys who can take it from the class to the grass and put it in game situations and be big.''

Cunningham, who in high school blocked a punt, found the detail he needed for his latest big play from film study the day before the game. During the game, he saw Auburn confirm what he thought and double-checked with position coach Chris Marve to make sure he could jump over the center as long as he didn't touch anyone.

When Daniel Carlson went out for a field goal in the final minutes, Cunningham timed his leap perfectly . The linebacker has seen the replay more than a few times and already has a favorite.

''I saw one video someone had me doing like (Super) Mario things,'' Cunningham said with a laugh. ''That was pretty funny.''

Cunningham has helped Vanderbilt rebound from losing two of its first three games. The Commodores (4-5, 1-4) visit Missouri (2-7, 0-5) on Saturday looking for their most wins since 2013 with bowl hopes still alive with three games remaining. Vanderbilt wraps up the season hosting Mississippi and then Tennessee.

The linebacker is showing up on NFL mock drafts as a potential first-round pick, but he said he's not currently thinking of his future. Adding a few more big plays to his resume is on his agenda for now.

''I'm definitely looking forward to what I can do to help my team help us win,'' Cunningham said. ''Anything that I'm able to do to help us achieve that that's what I'm looking forward to do.''

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More AP college football: www.collegefootball.ap.org

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