Malik Cunningham of Louisville continues to work on his abilities as a pocket passer
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — At this point, Malik Cunningham’s abilities as a quarterback are well documented.
After taking a bit of a step back in 2020 from an efficiency standpoint, the Louisville signal caller took a huge leap forward in his redshirt junior year last season. His 305.5 yards per game ranked 14th of all FBS, and he missed just one passing touchdown to crack the club-exclusive 20/20.
Much of Cunningham’s success is down to his running abilities. Last season, he rushed for 1,031 yards and 20 touchdowns, the latter ranking fourth nationally. He became just the 14th player in Louisville history to achieve a 1,000-yard season, and the second quarterback to do so behind Lamar Jackson.
That’s not to say the Montgomery, Alabama native isn’t proficient at throwing the ball. In fact, he took a big leap forward in his decision-making with the ball. After throwing 12 interceptions in 2020, playing a big part in this season’s turnover woes, he cut that mark in half for the 2021 season, while completing 62% of his passes for 19 touchdowns and a record career 2,941 yards.
But Cunningham knows there is still room for improvement. Even though his legs are one of college football’s deadliest weapons, he doesn’t try to use them as a crutch or a safety valve. Since the Cardinals’ spring training began last month, Cunningham — and the coaching staff — have made the passing game their focus.
“Coach won’t let me race at all,” he said. “I’m adapting to that. I like that little bit better, throwing to save my legs. It’s been good for the next level and for the season, because a lot of teams are probably not going to let me run. .”
Continuing to take more and more passing reps, as opposed to rushing reps, will also help the landing room wide. Of course, this notion is true for all college football teams, but especially for Louisville given the number of new faces at the position.
The Cardinals lost four scholarships, including Jordan Watkins and Justin Marshall, and replaced them with five new ones, namely Tyler Hudson and Dee Wiggins. Speed threats like Tyler Harrell, Ahmari Huggins-Bruce and Braden Smith return, but that’s really it.
“I just gave these guys the ball, I’m getting comfortable with the receivers. They trust me, I trust them.”
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Quarterbacks coach Pete Thomas played a big role in helping Cunningham become not only a much more polished passer last season, but a more balanced offensive weapon between running and passing. This offseason, there’s a much more concerted effort to hone Cunningham’s passing ability – whether he’s in the pocket or not.
“We’re trying to do that — even more than last year, sit in the pocket and go through his reads. When he’s jostling, jostling to pitch,” Thomas said. “Some of the biggest plays in the passing game come out of scrambling. If you look at NFL or college football, some of the biggest plays are scrambling and keeping our eyes on the field. We really pushed that too.”
Luckily, much of that effort isn’t being spent fixing something that’s mechanically broken with Cunningham. Thomas even went so far as to say he had “a really good throwing motion”. The one aspect of Cunningham’s game from a mechanical standpoint that needs some tweaking is his footwork.
“It all comes down to his feet,” Thomas said. “A lot of his bad throws from last year that we studied happen when his feet aren’t right. And as a quarterback, it all starts with your feet.”
The bad throws in question last were the occasional knockdown that a propensity to show up at the worst possible times, like when a receiver or tight end was wide open for a touchdown. As time passes and Cunningham continues to get more and more reps going, these tendencies slowly begin to fade.
“It’s been really good,” Thomas said. “He’s getting better every day at sitting in the pocket, making the throws and going through his reads.”
(Photo by Malik Cunningham: Jamie Rhodes – USA TODAY Sports)
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