(Photo of Malik Cunningham: Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY Sports)
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - At this point in time, most people know why the Louisville football program struggled during the 2020 season. Despite sporting a top 30 offense and top 40 defense in terms of yardage, one of the worst turnover margins in college football resulted in the Cardinals going just 4-7 on the year and 3-6 in the Atlantic Coast conference.
Louisville committed 24 turnovers last season, the fourth-most in FBS. 15 of those came from quarterback Malik Cunningham, as he threw 12 interceptions and lost three fumbles. This comes after he gave the ball up just eight times in 2019: five picks and three fumbles
Such a dramatic spike in turnovers from one guy seems almost unfathomable considering he set the school record for passing efficiency two seasons ago, and it had never really been a huge problem for him up until last season. Regardless, he has been dedicated to making sure he does not have a repeat performance in 2021.
"I've been waking up every day telling myself I can't turn the ball over," Cunningham said last Friday. "I can't go out there scared, and play not to turn the ball over, that's how turnovers happen. But just not force anything, just trust in my O-line and receivers that they're going to be where I needed to be. It's my job to deliver on the ball, and that's what I've been doing up to this point."
The 6-foot-1, 200-pound redshirt junior has placed an emphasis on being "patient and persistent", recognizes that not every play is going to be a "home run play", and going through his progressions. He has also been creating a bigger habit of dumping the ball to his running back whenever there are no options left.
"I got running backs I can check it down too, and that's a bit of what I've been harping on, been working on a lot this spring, is checking down to the running backs," he said. "Every time I've checked it down to the running back, he's almost got a first down."
Newly promoted quarterbacks coach Pete Thomas also recognizes the need to fix turnovers. However, in his approach to addressing it, he does not harp on them constantly to Cunningham.
"Obviously, (turnovers) was a big, big downfall for us last year, was we turned the ball over. Everybody knows it. Coaches know it, the players know it the fans know it," he said. "But I'm a firm believer of not saying, 'hey don't do this, we need to focus on doing this to prevent that'. So we're not hammering, 'hey, you can't throw interceptions' or 'you can't fumble the ball'. It's more of working on things to not let that happen."
Some of what Thomas is emphasizing with Cunningham so that he does not turn the ball over as much, is moving inside the pocket, putting two hands on the ball, and keeping the ball high and tight whenever he does have to scramble.
"He's got to bring the ball back to the huddle," Thomas said.
The Cards will kickoff the 2021 season against Ole Miss in the annual Chick-Fil-A Kickoff Game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Ga. on Monday, Sept. 6.
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