One challenging part of the Virginia football schedule in 2021 connects directly to the other teams’ rosters. Prior to the start of the season, it looked like the Cavaliers could potentially face seven returning starters at quarterback in their eight ACC games.
That list included Sam Howell (North Carolina), Sam Hartman (Wake Forest), D’Eriq King (Miami), Jeff Sims (Georgia Tech), Kenny Pickett (Pittsburgh), Braxton Burmeister (Virginia Tech), and this week’s opponent Malik Cunningham (Louisville). King missed last week’s game at Miami and the Hoos won 30-28, but they dropped games against Howell and Hartman in September. Howell passed for 307 yards and 5 touchdowns with 112 rushing yards to boot, while Hartman threw for 270 yards and 3 touchdowns with 16 rushing yards.
Cunningham will see what he can do this week as he faces UVA for the fourth time. That makes Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall clearly aware of the challenges facing his defense this week.
“On a scale of whatever dangerousnesses there are, I would put him at the top of the dangerous scale in terms of how fast, how athletic,” Mendenhall said. “He can pull it down and run on any given play. I’m just really impressed with him. I think he’s a really good athlete. I think his throwing accuracy and precision has improved. On any given play, he’s a threat. Yeah, doesn’t take much to remind me from a year ago where we had a really hard time getting him on the ground or tackling him. He’s a really good football player in a scheme that uses him really well.”
It’s easy to see why last season’s stat line would be hard to forget.
Virginia won 31-17 behind a good effort against the passing game as Cunningham completed 13 of 21 passes for 161 yards, 0 touchdowns, and 1 interception – a Noah Taylor pick-6 that covered 85 yards and gave Virginia the early lead. But Cunningham had a monster day running the football. He posted 197 rushing yards with 2 touchdowns on just 20 carries. That’s 9.9 yards per carry. He just gave the defense all kinds of problems with his legs. Those numbers were actually dimmed a bit by 4 sacks that helped accumulate 33 lost yards or Cunningham would have been close to 250 yards rushing.
The 2019 game, which Louisville won 28-21, had a similar script. Cunningham completed just 6 of 10 passes for 126 yards, 1 touchdown, and 0 interceptions. UVA made 3 sacks that helped lead to 17 lost yards. Cunningham countered with another strong rushing game that finished as 11 carries for 97 yards and 1 touchdown. That’s an 8.8 yards per carry average.
In 2018, Virginia won 27-3 and had its best effort against Cunningham. He made his first career start in that game but shared time with Jawon Pass. Cunningham completed 6 of 9 passes for just 35 yards with no touchdowns and an interception. He did lead his team in rushing in that game too, but it was a total of 26 yards on 10 carries. Remember, the 2018 UVA defense statistically was the best of the Mendenhall era to date.
The Hoos know it’s going to take a group effort to try to limit Cunningham’s impact as much as possible again in 2021. That may mean varying coverages, including potentially heavy doses of man to man to try to deal with his dual threat abilities, and specific assignments such as a spy, second contain roles, and more,
“I’d love to say it’s just one [unit], but it’s really the entire 11 because they’re all interrelated,” Mendenhall said. “You can’t just say the defensive line you have him because there is not a matchup that is in our favor athletically. You can’t say linebacker, you have him. In space there’s not a matchup that’s in our favor or anyone else’s. Secondary-wise they have to know their coverage will be longer … .”
“Specifically with D-Line, it’s not rushing past him,” Cavalier safety Coen King said. “If you ever get past the quarterback, it says he can just step up and now he just has to make a linebacker miss and he’s on the third level of the defense. Covering as tight as you can for as long as you can. It’s complementary football. For the DBs, covering as long as they can and if that’s putting someone on Malik to spy him and the D-Line just being sound and not rushing past him – it all goes together for him.”
Virginia has some familiarity with mobile quarterbacks, of course. Brennan Armstrong can make plays with his legs and the Wahoo use Keytaon Thompson and Jacob Rodriguez as players that can take snaps or handoffs and run. There’s also players like backup quarterback Ira Armstead that the defense sees in action and Jay Woolfolk, who has helped simulate an athletic quarterback on the scout team along with Jared Rayman, a former high school QB himself.
Still, it’s hard to get a specific comparison for Cunningham. When a reporter asked Nick Grant if anyone reminded him of Louisville’s quarterback, there was a long pause and then a simple “No.” Grant laughed and then offered more praise for the upcoming opponent. That’s understandable as Cunningham enters this week’s contest with 7 touchdown passes vs. only 2 interceptions plus 309 rushing yards with 10 touchdowns.
“If I’m going to be honest, no,” Grant said. “He’s electric. He could run all over any team in the nation honestly so it’s just about having a plan for him and executing it.”