To cap off our 2021 Louisville football previews, we will be taking a look at the quarterback position.
Malik Cunningham started all 11 games for Louisville last season, completing 64.1% of his passes for 2,617 yards and 20 touchdowns (also adding 609 rushing yards and seven touchdowns). However, Cunningham struggled with turnovers throughout the season, throwing 12 interceptions and losing three fumbles.
Louisville finished the 2020 season ranked ninth in the ACC in passing yards per game (244.2) and fourth in yards per attempt (8.5). The Cardinals also finished fourth in the conference in total offense (444.2), and was one of four schools in the ACC to average 200+ yards per game passing and rushing (Virginia Tech, North Carolina, and Notre Dame were the other three).
Listed Starter: Malik Cunningham
To no one’s surprise, Cunningham returns as the starting quarterback once again. He took over as the starter after Jawon Pass was sidelined with a toe injury early in the 2019 season, and hasn’t looked back since.
While Cunningham was one of the most efficient quarterbacks in 2019, the turnovers in 2020 made it extremely frustrating for all parties involved. Not all of the turnovers were his fault (some of it can be attributed to bad drops and fumbles from other players), but each one felt more and more agonizing, especially since Louisville lost a lot of games last season by one possession.
This begs the question: will we see the Malik Cunningham from 2019, or 2020? They’re both extreme ends of how the quarterback position looks as far as efficiency, but the answer should (hopefully) be somewhere in the middle. Pragmatic approach, I know; but again, 2019 and 2020 were the best and worst versions of Cunningham, respectively.
As far as his skill set, everyone is familiar with Cunningham’s strengths at this point. He’s a great athlete that can make plays with his scrambling, and Satterfield will use him on designed runs. Even with some games where he’s been banged up, Cunningham has shown enough toughness to be able to handle a full season of work.
Cunningham is also a solid passer, able to hit throws downfield and thrive in the intermediate passing game. In fact, he actually improved his completion percentage from the previous season (62.6% in 2019, 64.1% in 2020).
However, a lot of his faults showed when he was looking to force throws into unnecessary windows or staring down receivers. Pair that with the well-documented turnover struggles, and the obvious answer to Cunningham’s improvement is better decision making and working through progressions more efficiently. That will especially be a point of emphasis this season with Tutu Atwell and Dez Fitzpatrick gone, and Cunningham working with a younger receiving corps than he’s had in the previous three seasons. If Cunningham can improve on overall ball security (as well as Louisville as a whole), the offense should be a solid unit this season.
Key Reserves: Evan Conley, Brock Domann, T.J. Lewis, Nathan McElroy
Even with Pass’s departure, Louisville has some experience in the quarterback room with Evan Conley. Conley had some big moments for Louisville as their backup in October 2019, coming through on some of their most important wins against Boston College and Wake Forest. However, he had some struggles later in the month, which ultimately paved the way for Cunningham to become a full-time starter. Even without many reps last season, Conley is a lock to be Louisville’s backup simply due to his familiarity with Satterfield’s offense.
Other than Conley, Louisville has newcomers at the position. Brock Domann arrives from Independence Community College to serve as the defacto third-string quarterback for Louisville. Domann was a late pickup for the Cardinals after Pass and Webb transferred this off-season, and his arrival was also important given Chubba Purdy flipped at the eleventh hour to Florida State in December 2019.
Domann has some mobility that Satterfield can work with, but he is more comparable to Conley. He has solid accuracy and mobility, and I was really impressed by his ability to hit off-balance throws on tape. He might be able to compete for a starting spot if Louisville remains unlucky with landing a quarterback in the 2022 or 2023 classes, but Conley is likely ahead of him as of now.
T.J. Lewis is also a name to watch, and for my money, he was one of the most exciting players in Louisville’s 2021 recruiting class. He’s an explosive athlete that can make plays with his feet, but will likely redshirt to develop his passing. However, he was spotted recently working with the wide receiver group (according to Michael McCammon of Cardinal Authority), so it’s possible that he may be changing positions to better utilize his athleticism.
With Lewis’s possible transition, that likely means QB4 would go to Nathan McElroy. McElroy is a Trinity High School product, leading the Shamrocks to back-to-back state championships in 2019 and 2020. He’s got a quick release and some solid intermediate accuracy, and should add some much needed depth to the quarterback room.