From Johnny U to Chris Redman to Lamar Jackson, why Micale Cunningham will be the next great Louisville football quarterback.
When you think about who truly is the “Quarterback U” of college football there are a number of ways you can go. ESPN, Bleacher Report, Sports Illustrated, and plenty of others have attempted to put together their own unique formula driven to tell us who the real “QBU” is.
On any given list you’re bound to find Louisville football , albeit not usually at the top, but nonetheless mentioned as a top producer of college quarterbacks. And of course, it all starts with Johnny Unitas, who despite being considered a legend still doesn’t get the credit he deserved.
There was certainly a long gap after the departure of Unitas but once again in the 1990s and early 2000s Louisville football began producing top notch quarterbacks at a rate only matched by some of the nation’s traditional “blue blood” programs.
Chris Redman, Dave Ragone, Stefan LeFors, Brian Brohm, Teddy Bridgewater, and Lamar Jackson make up the list of the most successful and productive quarterbacks Louisville has had over the last two three decades. All have major accomplishments and have left their own individual mark on the program; some players impact bigger than others.
Regardless, all have pushed Louisville to the next level in the college landscape, leaving the program a little better than they found it before. While also capturing the allure of the fan base, connecting with the masses in ways that players at other positions simply can’t do.
That has left us with legends like Bridgewater who was the catalyst that pushed the Cards to arguably the biggest win in program history over Florida, with incredible performances against Rutgers, Cincinnati, and others quickly coming to mind for fans.
Lamar was the programs first Heisman Trophy winner and left as hands down the best player to ever wear a Louisville jersey.
Brian Brohm went from a quarterback prodigy to a Louisville football legend who constantly kicked down the door of major Big East defenses and pushed the ceiling on where the Cards could go in the national landscape.
Stefon LeFors and Dave Ragone both won incredibly big games that at the time felt like Super Bowls to Louisville fans, including the major upset over Florida State in 2002. They left as two of the most prolific passers in program history each responsible for pushing the program further and further.
When Malik Cunningham took the field for the first time in 2018 the expectations were never higher for a Louisville quarterback. It wasn’t his fault that he had to follow in the footsteps of Lamar Jackson nor that he was put into a game for the first time under such unique circumstances.
Regardless, the first year performance of Cunningham was average at best – mostly to no fault of his own. We saw a player who was raw but extremely talented, who dazzled while still struggling overall. That led to him being over looked and essentially counted out as being the next star at the position.
Then came Scott Satterfield and a new hope for Cunningham. Seen as just a scrambler who could do some things with his arm every once in a while, Satterfield and quarterbacks coach Frank Ponce found the perfect guy to execute their system.
It took time to see him blossom into the quarterback that the coaches saw behind closed doors, but eventually Louisville fans and the rest of the ACC were put on notice by the Cards new starter.
We always knew Cunningham could do dangerous things with his legs, but it was his ability to throw deep passes down the field accurately and hit his budding trio of receivers, Tutu Atwell, Dez Fitzpatrick, and Seth Dawkins.
What we saw out of Cunningham in 2019 when he finished with 2,534 passing yards, 22 touchdowns to only five interceptions, with a 62.4% completion percentage (the highest since Teddy Bridgewater), while rushing for another 482 yards and six touchdowns was simply incredible. Not to mention he did all of this while only starting 11 games and exiting another four early because of injury or illness.
Game after game we saw Cunningham connect on an array of deep passes for 50, 60, 70, and even 80 and 90 yard touchdowns, doing so in a historically efficient ways. In an offense that the coaching staff described as “simple” in their first year, Cunningham became one of the top ACC quarterbacks and a player who would soon garner Heisman potential.
By seasons end, Cunningham would surpass LeFors as the most efficient passer in program history, finish first in the ACC in passing efficiency at 169.3, lead the country in yards per completion (18.4 ypc), and earn himself the MVP Award in the Music City Bowl victory.
He also showed that despite his slow start in 2018, that he in fact was in line to become the next great Louisville football quarterback. Obviously there’s still a ton of work to do for both Cunningham and the pieces around him – but what we saw in his first full season as a starter should only go to show what is ahead.
Now in year two and his first season as “the guy” Cunningham is set to do something special. With an incredible coaching staff all back for a second season as well as the trio of All-ACC caliber weapons in Atwell, Hawkins, and Marshon Ford returning, Cunningham shouldn’t have any issues picking up right where he left off against Mississippi State.
To add his name to the list of all time great who have worn the red and black, Cunningham will have to propel the Cardinals to a level that they haven’t been able to get to quite some time. Something that the redshirt junior has worked hard to prepare for even in the middle of a pandemic.
Of Cunningham’s work ethic and time spent perfecting his craft during the offseason, Ponce said:“The development has been incredible and that’s all credit to him for being a student of the game. As the quarterback you have to be one.”
Everything is in place for Cunningham to build on his special statistical performance in 2019, and if he can lead Louisville to matching or exceeding expectations this season there’s no question he’ll be mentioned in the same breath as the greats before him.
He’ll also put himself in a spot to become a hot commodity in the NFL Draft and add even more fuel to the fire of Louisville football being the “real QBU.”
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