By Robert Carter
North Jefferson News
It’s become a bit of a tradition on National Signing Day, although not always a welcome one by coaches: the “hat dance.”
It’s an array of baseball caps lined up in front of a highly-prized recruit who has kept his choice of a college to himself. He picks out one hat as the cameras roll, a recruiting coordinator high-fives his head coach in a distant city, and two or three others cross a name off their list.
On the media circus that is college football's National Signing Day, that recruit locally was Pinson Valley outside linebacker Zach Cunningham, who picked out the black cap with the stay and the letter V. He’s headed to Vanderbilt.
Cunningham chose the Commodores over traditional SEC programs Tennessee and Auburn, as well as rising West Coast power Oregon, they of the ever-changing uniforms and the Nike money from company founder Phil Knight.
“It [Vandy] just felt right,” Cunningham said.
Cunningham was put off a bit by Auburn’s reluctance to offer him their last remaining scholarship. Coach Gus Malzahn was holding out hope for signing hometown standout Reuben Foster, who announced Tuesday that he would commit to Alabama instead. “I guess that kind of rubbed me the wrong way,” Cunningham said.
It didn’t turn off teammate Earnest Robinson, who’s been ranked highly by nearly every national recruiting ranking all year. He had verbally committed to Auburn under Gene Chizik, then briefly reconsidered when Chizik was let go, but came back to the Tigers. It was Gus Malzahn who had originally recruited Robinson before moving to Arkansas State, and Robinson was only too happy to connect again with Malzahn.
“Me and Coach Malzahn go way back. He was my very first recruiter back then. I’m very excited to have him as a coach,” Robinson said.
Robinson had tried to get Cunningham to come along with him to the Plains, to no avail. “I tried my hardest to get him, because I know he’s going to be very good,” Robinson said.
Vanderbilt is known for its high academic standards, which sometimes is a barrier for football recruits. Not so for Cunningham, whose academics are more than good enough, according to Pinson coach Matt Glover. “He’s all AP (advanced placement) and pre-AP classes and scored a 24 on his ACT. He’ll be good to go,” Glover said.
Cunningham was a bit of a late-bloomer in the recruiting process, and didn’t get any serious attention until the ninth week of the regular season — unlike Robinson, who has been on recruiting radar screens for ages. So why was that?
“Because people didn’t listen to me when I told them about him!” Glover exclaimed.
Cunningham was the only player from north Jefferson and Blount counties to hold off on his announcement until Signing Day. Everyone else had verbally committed some time ago, particularly Fultondale quarterback/safety ArDarius Stewart. He had committed to Alabama early in the process — well before the Tide’s latest BCS national championship — and never wavered. Stewart, the runner-up in this season’s Mr. Football voting, made it official on live streaming video Wednesday morning as the entire student body and numerous cameras looked on.
Minutes later, in a much more low-key ceremony, Gardendale High had three players sign: Running back Jordan Howard, who is headed to UAB; tight end Jesse Blackburn to Murray State in Kentucky; and lineman Ryan Tallmage, who signed an academic scholarship with Division III school Birmingham-Southern.
Hayden High will also send three players to college ball: quarterback Corey Ward and lineman Steven Ballard, both headed for NAIA school Faulkner University in Montgomery; and Trent Dodson, who will join Tallmage at Birmingham-Southern. Ward and Ballard will be joined by Pinson’s Jeffrey Blair, who was part of the Indians’ three-man signing ceremony along with Robinson and Cunningham.