(Photo of Malik Cunningham: Winslow Townson - USA TODAY Sports)
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - It's no secret that Louisville football's offense will look markedly different in the 2021 season than it has over the past two season. With running back Javian Hawkins and wide receivers Tutu Atwell and Dez Fitzpatrick departing for the NFL, the Cardinals are losing 2,280 yards of offense and 17 touchdowns. For greater context, that's 46.6% of their total yardage and 41.5% of their trips to the end zone.
While the biggest individual hit comes from Hawkins, who rushed for 822 yards and seven touchdowns before opting out, the wide receiver room has the biggest collective hit. Atwell and Fitzpatrick combined for 1,458 yards and 10 touchdowns-over half of the team's receiving yards and exactly half of the receiving scores.
As a result of losing so much marquee talent, combined with having so much youth and relative inexperience amongst the offensive skill position players, quarterback Malik Cunningham is now the de facto leader of that group.
Faced with having a mix of newcomers and potential breakout veterans, the Montgomery, Ala. native is taking advantage of his time on the practice field and in the weight room to bond with his teammates. He says there isn't a day that goes by that he is not around them, whether it's going out to eat, hanging out in their dorms, or watching the NBA Playoffs, they are constantly building chemistry and camaraderie.
"Just having those guys around me even more, it just makes it better, and they can trust me, and I can trust them," Cunningham said. "It helps a lot, because they'll know where I want them to be at, just watching film together. They'll come into this upcoming season just knowing the ins and outs of the plays, or where I need them to be when I need to do it, and just stuff like that."
A newcomer who he is high on is Shai Werts, who not only transferred from Georgia Southern over the offseason, but is making the transition to wide receiver. Despite having limited experience at receiver, Werts has shown out over spring ball and summer workouts, and Cunningham likes what he sees.
"Shai's a very smart player," he said. "He knows the ins and outs of football. He brings a lot of experience to that to that receiver room, and is somebody that those guys can lean on for anything. We call him uncle around here. A lot of guys feed off his energy, very positive guy, and a very good athlete."
As far as veterans on the team go, Cunningham is particularly excited to see Justin Marshall and Josh Johnson finally get their respective breakout opportunities. He also thinks Braden Smith, Jordan Watkins and Tyler Harrell can make meaningful contributions.
"It's like a blessing in my eyes, because those guys stayed on for a long time. We all came in together, and now it's that time to show everybody, show Card Nation, the world, what they're capable of doing," he said. "I've been putting in a lot of time with those guys in the film room and on the practice field, even outside of here. We work on just being together, that brings a lot to the table, and I'm ready to see what those guys do this year."
Of course, Cunningham didn't forget to mention incoming freshmen Ahmari Huggins-Bruce and Demetrius Cannon. He says the newcomers are finally starting to understand their workouts, and why they are asked what to do what they are doing by the coaching staff.
"You've got to know what you're doing, know the playbook, know the ins and outs of stuff, and how it's gonna work out good for those guys. They've been doing pretty good," he said.
Even outside of the receiver room, Cunningham is extraordinarily complimentary of the rest of the offense. He likes the depth the Cardinals have at running back and loves the fact that most of the offensive line came back for another season.
"I'm trying to do my best to take care of those guys on the weekends, just hanging out with them, and spend some time with them," he said. "Offensive linemen, they don't get too much limelight, and those guys really deserve it. So every time I get, try my best to shout those guys out, because without them, there's no me."
As we inch closer to the season opener vs. Ole Miss, Cunningham is more than ready to lead this new look Louisville offense. While he describes his status as a leader a "very good" and "big task", the process of getting acclimated with his targets for the upcoming season is going well to so far this summer.
"They see me up and ready to go, they're gonna work hard to get their best foot forward," he said. "If I'm down, they'll come over and check on me, which I'm probably never down, but if I'm having a long day or whatever, they'll come over and check on me. Just buying in, and trying to get everybody on board with this upcoming season."
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