HOOVER, Ala. -- When Zach Cunningham began his senior year in high school, his lone offer was from UAB. He wasn't on the radar of SEC teams yet, and he had three stars from most, if not all, recruiting services at the time.
That same year, Jarrad Davis was heading into his senior season. He was committed to Auburn, and he too was a three-star recruit. He was considered the third-best recruit on his high school team, behind Brice Ramsey and J.J. Green.
Four years later, Cunningham (Vanderbilt) and Davis (Florida) are two of the best linebackers in the SEC.
"It's the imperfect science of recruiting," Florida coach Jim McElwain said. "Sometimes guys maybe were caught up in all the [hype], maybe got really coddled at a young age for how good they were, and then real life hits them.
"A guy like Jarrad, a guy like [Zach], those guys, every day they're earning it. That's pretty cool to see."
When coaches visited Pinson Valley (Alabama) High School in 2012, it was to see Earnest Robinson, an ESPN 300 wide receiver who signed with Auburn. Cunningham was just one of Robinson's teammates.
But there was a game midway through his senior season in which it became clear who the best player on the field was. It wasn't Robinson. Pinson Valley played a team that ran the triple option, and Cunningham tackled everybody on the field. He tackled the quarterback. He tackled the guy running the dive. He tackled the pitch man. It didn't matter. He tackled them all.
"When he did that, that's when the offers started," Pinson Valley coach Matt Glover said. "As a matter of fact, I think Tennessee was there that night. Coach [Derrick] Ansley, now at Alabama, he was recruiting for Tennessee, and he offered him at halftime. I'm coming off the field, and I remember him telling me, 'Coach, he's got an offer.' After that, it just blew up."
The offers started coming from other SEC schools, including Auburn, Ole Miss, South Carolina and Vanderbilt. There were major programs outside the SEC, programs such as Miami, Penn State, Oregon and UCLA, who all sent offers. In a matter of months, Cunningham went from having one offer from UAB to being able to choose among more than a dozen Power 5 schools.
"It actually started getting crazy, where I'd get taken out of class: 'So-and-so is here to talk to you,'" Cunningham said. "It did start picking up really fast."
Despite the interest, Cunningham was never a priority for the two in-state schools. Alabama considered a grayshirt offer, an opportunity Glover said Cunningham might have accepted, but it never came to fruition. Although Auburn offered him a scholarship, the new coaching staff was heavily invested in Reuben Foster and wanted to see what he was going to do first.
Cunningham ultimately signed with Vanderbilt, a decision that doesn't look so bad in hindsight. The 6-foot-4, 230-pound linebacker led the Commodores with 103 tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks this past year and was named first-team All-SEC by the league's coaches.
"It's definitely crazy and amazing to me," Cunningham said. "I've always had people tell me that I had a lot of potential and that I had great things ahead for me, but I never could have imagined that something like this would be happening."
Like Cunningham, Davis wasn't on Florida's radar when he began his senior year. Will Muschamp, Florida's head coach at the time, didn't know who Davis was until he called a high school coach in Georgia late that season and asked him about players in the area.
That coach, Rance Gillespie at Valdosta High School, mentioned Davis and said he was the best player in the region that year.
"We did our research quickly," Muschamp said. "He was committed to Auburn at the time, but nobody else had recruited him. He was going to Auburn, and then we called him. They had a staff change, and we were able to get him. But we knew from Day 1 that this guy was a football player. He'll split your skull."
Davis remembers his recruitment. He remembers his high school teammates getting most of the attention. He remembers getting only three stars. He remembers that he was the last linebacker Florida took in the 2013 class.
"I'll never forget what Muschamp told me," Davis said. "He said that my tape from my junior year to my senior year, it was almost like night and day, from the way I was playing, the way I was getting to the ball and what I was doing when I got to the ball. I guess that piqued his interest. He took a chance on me.
"And for me to come in as the last linebacker, a three-star, it definitely put a chip on my shoulder. That's something I still carry today."
Of the four linebackers who signed with the Gators in 2013, Davis had more tackles than the other three combined last fall. The junior finished with 98 tackles in all and had 11 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks.
Now that Antonio Morrison is gone, many believe Davis is about to have his best season yet at Florida. He's a trendy pick for first-team All-SEC.
"I go at it every day like I did when I was a freshman," Davis said. "I'm trying to go out and break something. I'm trying to go out and let everybody know who Jarrad Davis is. No matter what you already know, you still don't know me. You still have a lot to learn."