Growing up in Alabama, Zach Cunningham never had much free time. After football practice on weekdays, Cunningham would help mow lawns for his father's landscaping business. On weekends, Cunningham laid tile, sheetrock and whatever else his mother needed for her jobs. Fred and Sophie Cunningham expected their son Zach, along with his four brothers and two sisters, to help out in the family businesses.
"Over the years, that is where I'd say I get my work ethic from," Cunningham said on Texans Radio.
The rookie inside linebacker has shown his coaches as much too. His work ethic combined with athleticism has helped him see action in every game this season with 11 starts. From the time he was drafted as a second-round pick through OTAs, training camp and now as a starter, Cunningham has shown steady progress.
"He's gotten better and better," head coach Bill O'Brien said. "He's physical. He can run. He's good on special teams. He's got a really good future in this league."
Cunningham has the third-most tackles (61), 34 solo, as well as 1.5 sacks, 3 tackles for loss, two quarterback hits, three passes defensed and one forced fumble. Cunningham has also contributed seven special teams tackles.
"I think he's willing to learn," defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel said. "He's coachable. He plays hard. He runs around, he does everything we ask him to do. He's instinctive. And he's getting better every week, I think he really is. I think he makes mistakes – I got to do a better job coaching him, just on the little things, but every time he sees a play, he normally is able to adjust to it the second time around and improve."
Cunningham has also relied on his teammates to help him adjust to the speed of the NFL. With Bernardrick McKinney now in his third season and nine-year veteran Brian Cushing in his position group, Cunningham has not only adapted to his position as MIKE linebacker, he has also developed a versatility that allows the Texans to line him up as a defensive end depending on the scheme.
"It's definitely helped me, you know," Cunnigham said. "Those guys are really helpful. They've taken me in under their shoulders and kind of shown me the way. Helped me develop as a player, helped me develop mentally with the game and not just them, the coaches as well, putting in the extra hours just to help me acclimate better to the position."
Check out photos from Thursday's practice as the Texans prepare for the Steelers.