Jawon Pass started the first two games of the season against Notre Dame and Eastern Kentucky. Pass struggled against the Irish (12/27, 134 yards), but rebounded with a stellar 12/19 outing against the Colonels, throwing four touchdown passes in the 42-0 shutout win.
Pass’s season would end after the EKU game, suffering a right toe injury that ended up requiring surgery. His 2019 season ended with a 136.8 passer rating, 52% completion, and a 4/1 TD/INT ratio.
Enter Malik Cunningham — later redubbed Micale Cunningham — who would split time with freshman Evan Conley throughout the 2020 season. Cunningham had one of the most efficient seasons in program history, completing 62% of his passes for 2,065 yards, 22 touchdowns to just five interceptions, and set a new single season school record with a 194.44 passer rating. He also rushed for 482 yards and six touchdowns, and was named MVP of the 2019 Music City Bowl (16/23, 279 yards, two TDs; 16 carries for 81 yards) while doing his best Lamar Jackson impersonation.
Evan Conley split reps at quarterback with Cunningham, most notably in wins against Boston College and Wake Forest. In both games, Conley came off the bench and delivered game winning drives for the Cardinals, completing 64% of his passes for 336 yards, three touchdowns and one interception in that span. After some struggles against Clemson and Virginia later in the month, Cunningham eventually became the full-time QB, with Conley coming in sparingly during November.
As a team, Louisville set another record with 10.1 yards per attempt, with 32 passing touchdowns and nine interceptions.
Projected Starter: Micale Cunningham
Micale Cunningham earned the starting job based on his performance last season, but the groundwork for that might have started in 2018. Louisville’s only two wins that season came when Cunningham replaced Jawon Pass at quarterback. He also led the team in rushing despite his limited playing time that season, and was statistically a more efficient passer than Pass.
|2018 Stats||Completion %||Yards/Attempt||TD/INT Ratio||Passer Rating|
Of course, those numbers need context behind it. Jawon Pass struggled with accuracy issues and poor pass protection. Cunningham was a run-first quarterback who didn’t throw the ball enough to help Louisville’s offense; also as a backup quarterback, he didn’t have nearly the volume of work that Pass had.
Pass and Cunningham entered 2019 in need of a redemption arc in their college careers. Due to Pass suffering a toe injury that ultimately ended his season, we never got to see what the offense could be with him as the starter.
But, it did allow us to see what the offense could be with Cunningham as the starter. Cunningham made tremendous strides in his passing game, especially downfield and in play action situations. His 11.5 yards per attempt made Louisville’s offense one of the most dynamic in the ACC, averaging 33.1 points per game (second in the conference).
With Cunningham, you get a quarterback that complements the Louisville offense tremendously. His ability as a runner gives Louisville another dangerous playmaker in the run-heavy offense, especially outside in options and QB keepers. But his prowess as a deep passer will keep teams from stacking the box to stop the run, especially with the playmakers that Louisville has at wide receiver and tight end. With a clean pocket, Cunningham was effective, having the third-highest PFF grade under such scenarios in 2019.
In 2020, Cunningham should be improving his passing under pressure, as well as short passing game. Staying healthy would also improve his outlook with NFL scouts, potentially as a late flyer in the 2021 or 2022 drafts.
Reserves: Jawon Pass, Evan Conley, Tee Webb
Louisville’s uncertainty at the quarterback position last year is long gone in 2020, as they have three players (including Cunningham) who have seen game reps.
After Micale Cunningham seized the starting job with his breakout 2019 campaign, Jawon Pass was thought to be a possible grad transfer. However, he decided to return to Louisville for his senior season, which gives Louisville a veteran backup behind Cunningham.
Pass’s 2019 season wasn’t perfect by any means, but it was encouraging. Scott Satterfield’s system showed that he could make plays with his feet, scoring Louisville’s only two touchdowns on the ground against Notre Dame. Though he still struggled with accuracy last year, he did hit a stride against Eastern Kentucky in the second half, completing all six of his passes for 95 yards and two touchdowns.
Pass does have the ideal NFL frame at 6’4″ and 228 lbs., much bigger than Cunningham (6’1″, 200 lbs.). He has impressive physical tools, including a strong arm and I have seen him make solid throws (one example is this sideline throw against Florida State in 2018). But when it comes down to consistency and “reaching the ceiling,” Cunningham has proven to be the better option for Louisville at this time. If Cunningham stills struggles with injuries though, expect Pass to be the next man up at quarterback. And if Cunningham’s own growth is any indicator, who is to say Pass can’t also improve under Satterfield and quarterbacks coach Frank Ponce?
It is rare to see any college football team have three quarterbacks with significant game reps, but Evan Conley is the third man for Louisville. He played in seven games last year in relief of Cunningham, but the most notable were his clutch performances against Boston College and Wake Forest. In both games, he led the Cardinals to game winning drives, including a late 41-yard touchdown run on fourth down that iced Louisville’s win against #19 Wake Forest.
What was a meteoric rise for Conley quickly came down, as he struggled in the next two games against Clemson and Virginia (6/15, 51 yards, INT in that span). That allowed Cunningham to permanently hold the quarterback job, but much like with Pass, what we saw with Conley was very encouraging. You don’t find a lot of freshman quarterbacks that can deliver in tough late game situations like Conley did, and that’s a trait that usually doesn’t leave you. As long as both Cunningham and Pass are healthy though, it’s possible that Conley gets a redshirt to improve his overall game.
Another redshirting quarterback is Tee Webb, who was the top Louisville commit at the position after Chubba Purdy flipped at the eleventh hour to Florida State. I love his arm strength and his mechanics as a thrower, and he’s coming from a strong pedigree of QBs in Cartersville, GA (Tee Webb played at the same high school as Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence). He has a slightly smaller frame than Lawrence at 6’4″, 195, but with a redshirt year to bulk up, I could see him getting to around 210-215 by his senior season. He doesn’t have the mobility that Cunningham or Pass have, but he is a capable runner and I think his pocket awareness is already there. Despite missing out on Purdy, I think Louisville’s future at QB is in good hands with Webb right now.