LOUISVILLE, Ky. – At this point in time, it’s well documented that Malik Cunningham is one of the most dynamic players not only in the ACC, but in all of college football. The Louisville quarterback is coming off of a 2021 campaign where he demonstrated how deadly he can be both through the air and on the ground.
He completed 62.0 percent of his passes for 2,941 yards and 19 touchdowns to only six interceptions, while also rushing for 1,031 yards and 20 touchdowns. Not only did he have the fourth-most rushing touchdowns in the nation, but his 305.5 yards per game ranked 14th in all of FBS.
Related: Coaches Talk Anonymously About Louisville QB Malik Cunningham
As Cunningham heads into his final season with the Cardinals, he has been generating a fair amount of hype and recognition, to the point where many consider him to be a dark horse Heisman Trophy candidate. Of course, he has continued to work on his on-field abilities, but some of the biggest progressions he has made this offseason have been his abilities as a leader, and it all started as soon as last season ended.
“We wanted to see more leadership from him. He was already a great leader, but he’s one of those guys who can be a vocal leader,” offensive coordinator Lance Taylor said during Louisville’s media day. “Guys are going to rally around him. He’s the quarterback. He’s the franchise piece. In the middle of that huddle when things are going well, or when things aren’t going well, guys look up to him. They’re gonna want to see how he reacts in critical moments, and critical games, and see what his tempo is like.”
As Taylor said, it’s not that Cunningham wasn’t already a leader for Louisville, but that there was room for him to improve and take the next step. He was dedicated to this effort from day one, making sure he was always the one leading the pack, no matter the activity.
During various summer workouts, he was always making sure he was doing the little things like being at the front of the line for sprints, leading team-wide competitive activities. He also, like the rest of Louisville, was focusing on situational awareness. For the offense, these were areas such as third downs, red zone, two minute drills and other crucial moments.
“From a leadership standpoint, I thought he took a huge strides this spring and also this summer,” Taylor said.
The Montgomery, Ala. native is already starting to see the fruits of his efforts in fall camp. Sure, he has regularly put on display what makes him one of the most dangerous offensive weapons in the ACC, but it’s how he reacts when the offense isn’t successful that has reflected his leadership improvements the most.
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“He’s had a really good camp so far,” head coach Scott Satterfield said Friday when giving an update on fall camp at its halfway point. “He hasn’t been perfect, there’s been days where the defense has done some really good things. Where his leadership has really shown is when that happens. Maybe we didn’t win the situation offensively, but he didn’t get down. He still stayed positive, we’re gonna get it next time we get back out.
“In the past, he may really kind of get mad and get frustrated, which we’ve talked about. He can’t do that. Everybody is looking at you. You gotta lead you gotta leave a positive play. He’s been better at that, and I think that’s one of the things that he’s improved on in this offseason: to try to be positive no matter what the situation is, even when things don’t go your way. You got to come back and make a play the next time. I think that’s one of the areas of growth.”
This growth will be crucial if Louisville will have another season where their offense will lead the way. The offensive line is arguably the best in the ACC and the running back position is incredibly deep, but the wide receiver room – for the second offseason in a row – has had a fair amount of roster turnover after losing three of their top four weapons.
Fortunately, on top of the chemistry that Cunningham has built with his retooled receiver room, all of his pass catchers have been doing well in the preseason. Transfers Tyler Hudson and Dee Wiggins have had standout fall camps, Ahmari Huggins-Bruce could be in line for a breakout season, and tight end Marshon Ford is still as reliable as ever.
Louisville has moved some receivers around, but Cunningham still understands the assignment: get the ball to the playmakers.
“I think we’re just trying to figure out the best lineup, and the best spot and be able to put these guys to be able to make plays,” Satterfield said. “We’ll continue to do that, but (Cunningham) understands who the playmakers are. He understands who he has to get the ball to.”
Louisville will begin the 2022 season when they travel to upstate New York to face Syracuse on Saturday, Sept. 3.
(Photo of Malik Cunningham: Michael Clevenger – Courier Journal / USA TODAY NETWORK)
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