LOUISVILLE, Ky. - In 2019, Malik Cunningham showed the world his capabilities. Stepping in for an injured Jawon Pass, he proceeded to complete 62.6 percent of his passes for 2,065 yards, a career-best 22 touchdowns, and a single-season school record passing efficiency of 194.45 - a mark which was second in the nation to Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow.
Cunningham displayed some of those abilities last season, as his 64.1 completion percentage and 2,617 passing yards were both career-highs, but he also took a step back in another regard. His 12 interceptions were over double from his 2019 total of five, and when accounting for three lost fumbles, he was responsible for over half of Louisville's 24 lost turnovers in 2020.
Following the end of the 2020 season, the 6-foot-1, 200-pound dual threat signal caller made the decision to change the way he approached the game. He spent more time in the film room, became a much more vocal leader, and really dove into what Louisville was trying to accomplish on offense. Quarterbacks coach Pete Thomas has noticed a remarkable turnaround in his game during fall camp.
"He's done a great job of sitting in the pocket, trusting his reads," he said. "We all know what he can do on the run outside of the pocket, but I think he's made tremendous strides in terms of sitting in the pocket, and becoming a more polished passer."
One knock against Cunningham last season was his footwork, and overall ability to remain in the pocket. Far too often, the Montgomery, Ala. native made just one read, and opted to scramble and make a play with his legs. Thomas believes that Cunningham has become a lot more comfortable staying in the pocket.
"I'm a firm believer, no matter what you can do outside the pocket, your money is made as a quarterback five to eight yards right behind the center," he said. "At the end of the day, you're gonna have to throw the football to win games, and I think (Cunningham)'s made big strides in terms of sitting the pocket, going through his reads, trusting the O-line that they're gonna protect that spot, instead of just one read and get out of the pocket."
Part of his overall improvement in the command of the offense has been getting into more of a habit of taking what the defense gives him. Cunningham would occasionally force throws, or try and take advantage of his athleticism for a gain on the ground that might not have been the best option. Thomas and the rest of the coaching staff has instilled a mindset in Cunningham that he does not have to make a highlight play every time he touches the ball.
"Sometimes the defense wins, and you got to throw it away or check it down to the running back. Don't force things down the field. Sometimes, being in 2nd and 10 is fine," Thomas said. "2nd and 18 is hard to call, but 2nd and 10, it's still very manageable. Not forcing things, not feeling like he always has to try to make the spectacular play, I think will put us in better positions offensively."
On top of consciously working on ball control as a runner, being smarter as a runner in general, as well as as developing relationships both on and off the field with his receiver room, the staff feels extremely confident in a bounce-back year for Cunningham.
Louisville will kick off the 2021 season against Ole Miss in the annual Chick-Fil-A Kickoff Game, down at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Ga. Kickoff scheduled for Monday, Sept. 6 at 8:00 p.m. on ESPN.
(Photo of Malik Cunningham: Winslow Townson - USA TODAY Sports)
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