The UCF Defense Must Contain Louisville Quarterback Malik Cunningham

One component to holding down the Louisville offense will be making sure Malik Cunningham does not create explosive plays outside the pocket.
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ORLANDO - When it comes to stopping the run, few teams do it as well as UCF. The UCF defense swarmed to the football against Boise State and overwhelmed the offensive line of Bethune-Cookman. Now a challenge for stopping the run comes along that will be very different.

The Knights must keep the opposing Louisville quarterback in the pocket and make him throw the football. It may sound strange, but it’s the best course of action. When he ran the football, the Cardinals often proved to be a better team.

The term runs for this exercise will be much different than what people might think.

Malik Cunningham often accomplished his best work after being pressured. When he left the traditional pocket behind the center and between the two tackles, that would be when he often proved to be at his best. Additionally, outside the pocket allowed him to make throws after stressing a defense because there was a threat of Cunningham running.

When Cunningham caught a defense in between knowing if he would run or pass, bad things happened for the defense. He’s not a traditional quarterback that will methodically move the Cardinals down the field with five-yard completions and seven-yard completions. Outside the pocket, watch out for that scenario.

Malik Cunningham, Slowing Down the Athlete

There have been few college quarterbacks with as much raw physical skill as Cunningham lined up behind center during the past two years of college football. To keep him from consistently making huge plays, teams often attempted to utilize defensive ends and outside linebackers to stay wide and force Cunningham to remain in the pocket. Here’s an example:

In 2020, Louisville played at Notre Dame. The Irish had talented defensive ends from last year’s squad that went on to the NFL. They did a tremendous job of making sure Cunningham received pressure, but more importantly, made him a pocket passer.

Now, Cunningham went 16 of 19 passing against Notre Dame, but only for 132 yards and zero touchdowns. He also rushed seven times for 49 yards. Still, no touchdowns.

What Notre Dame accomplished by keeping Cunningham primarily in the pocket would be forcing him to be somewhat mechanical. He was more art than science at that point of his career, so despite allowing several short completions, Louisville’s offense struggled and his team lost 12-7. This will be a good strategy for UCF.

Kalia Davis and Herb Hand - UCF

Kalia Davis (#22) and the Knights need to surround Malik Cunningham and make him a pocket passer

All game long, each UCF defensive lineman must work together to contain Cunningham. That’s Big Kat Bryant, Anthony Montalvo, Ricky Barber, Kalia Davis, Cam Goode, and every other defensive lineman that comes into the game. Accomplishing this goal will go a long way towards UCF winning the game. Now a look at Cunningham’s statistics.

Evaluating Cunningham’s Passing Numbers

For 2019, Cunningham went 112 of 179 for 2,065 yards, 22 touchdowns and five interceptions.

For 2020, Cunningham went 195 of 304 for 2,617 yards, 20 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions.

There was much promise heading into 2020, but despite increasing his yardage, his interception total increased by seven. That’s partially due to the number of passes thrown, but he was also a more experienced signal caller by 2020. For whatever reason, Cunningham’s ability to not throw interceptions regressed.

For the 2019 season, 2.8% of Cunningham’s passes ended up as interceptions.

For the 2020 season, 3.9% of Cunningham’s passes end up as interceptions.

While just 1.1% higher, Cunningham’s interception ratio really hindered Louisville. During games that Louisville won, Cunningham amassed three interceptions. During losses, the signal caller threw nine interceptions.

Malik Cunningham Louisville

When pressured, Cunningham oftentimes loses where his receivers are located, and that can lead to turnovers

As stated previously, keeping him in the pocket can be part of the solution to slowing him down. The teams that usually gave up big plays allowed Cunningham to dictate to them by Cunningham being able to run or pass from outside the traditional tackle box. That’s when Cunningham would be at his most dangerous.

Cunningham as a Runner

This category will scare a defensive coach rather quickly. Cunningham rushed for 609 yards and seven touchdowns last season, and those totals included yards lost to sacks. He can really move his feet and make defenders miss. He’s 200 pounds, so the ability to break tackles will be present against the Knights as well.

Here’s a YouTube video defining what the Knights need to do against Cunningham to make sure he’s more of a passer than a runner:

Armstrong Will Be Important for Slowing Down Cunningham

Look for UCF hybrid linebacker Bryson Armstrong to be a big part of slowing down Cunningham. He will be responsible for helping to set the edge of the defense which keeps Cunningham in the pocket, first and foremost.

Armstrong will also be covering the flats at his ‘Knight’ position (that’s what UCF actually calls his position), helping to cover slot receivers and players in the short zones that Cunningham could check down to when under pressure from the UCF pass rush. This is when turnovers could take place.

Assuming Armstrong plays his role well, he could take away some of the short throws that Cunningham would like to make, and possibly lead him to making ill-advised passes that end up being turnovers.

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