LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - The Cardinals head to Charlottesville this weekend, with Malik Cunningham set to lead the offense.
Cunningham, the redshirt freshman, came into the Indiana State and Western Kentucky games in relief of Jawon “Puma” Pass. The spark Cunningham brought to the offense prompted head coach Bobby Petrino to name Cunningham the Week 4 starter. Cunningham’s dual-threat playing style has prompted many to compare him to predecessor and Heisman winner Lamar Jackson.
“I don’t really think about things like that,” Cunningham said. “I’m my own person.”
Louisville quarterbacks coach Nick Petrino said Cunningham gives the offense a lot of the same looks Jackson did, and shares his fighting spirit.
“He’s kind of like Lamar in that he wants to make every play,” Nick Petrino said. “He’s a competitive kid and he wants to make every play. But he needs to take what the defense gives him. I think he needs to make better decisions in that, and get the ball out of his hands sometimes in the passing game.”
Nick Petrino said it’s in Cunningham’s instinct to get yards with his legs, a situation which also could create an issue with the amount of hits the young quarterback takes. Cunningham said before this week he didn’t know how to slide to avoid some of that contact.
“I really don’t know how to slide,” Cunningham said. “So in the game Saturday, it went through my head how to slide, and I was about to do it but I didn’t know how so I just fell. It’s just something I have to learn how to do.”
Saturday’s appearance will be different for Cunningham because he’ll have spent an entire week preparing with the knowledge that he’d be starting.
“It’s a big difference,” Cunningham said. “I feel like I can take a lot out of it film-wise, watch more film, and get prepared for Saturday.”
19-year-old Cunningham is embracing his newly expanded leadership role, but says Pass is still a leader as well.
“Me and Puma, that’s like my big brother,” Cunningham said. “I can go to him with anything. We’re both leading this team, it’s just that I’ve got a bigger role now. I’ve got to be a more vocal leader and get those guys to come together as one.”
Redshirt sophomore running back Dae Williams had two touchdowns in the Cards 20-17 win over Western, and says Cunningham brings a new energy to the offense.
“He just brings a lot of energy, being a younger guy,” Williams said. “To come in and start, he just brings that energy and that fire that we need from a young guy like him.”
Williams also said he’s excited for their chance to play on the road this weekend.
“I’ve always been the type, I like to play on the road more than I like playing at home,” Williams said. “That’s just because I like shushing the away fans. So, I look forward to that opportunity.”
Cunningham says he’s excited for his opportunity, one he’s anticipated for nearly two decades.
“It’s a chance I’ve been waiting for my whole life, to prove what I can do,” Cunningham said. “I’ve just got to keep going and keep working.”