Scouting report: Malik Cunningham


Malik Cunningham runs to the end zone during the game against Clemson at Cardinal Stadium on November 4.

Barkley Truax

“He’s a special talent,” UK defensive coordinator Brad White said about the Louisville quarterback prior to Kentucky’s game against the Cardinals this Saturday.

Cunningham has been one of the most lethal dual-threat quarterbacks in not only the ACC this season, but the entire nation. His 2,589 passing yards and 18 touchdowns have been complemented all season long by his 933 rushing yards and 18 scores as well—Cunningham keeps defenses guessing.

“His command of the offense, you can see that there’s a confidence level that he’s playing with right now,” White said. “Arguably the most talented offensive weapon  we’ve seen all season, he’s really dangerous.”

That high praise for the junior out of Montgomery, Alabama is something that comes from experience. This will be the third time Cunningham would have played against Kentucky during his career as last season’s game was off the table due to UK playing an all-SEC schedule due to the pandemic. 

In his first two games, the Louisville quarterback combined for 142 passing yards on 11-19 passing with one touchdown and interception a piece; he also ran the ball 16 times for 116 yards and one score. In those two outings—Kentucky outscored the Cardinals 101-23.

Those performances took place a while ago, Cunningham has since proved to be the driving force behind this explosive Cardinal offense that just put up 62 points on Duke last Thursday. White said the key to keeping Cunningham contained lies with defensive discipline and keeping his pass rushers under control.

“When you play a dual threat quarterback, a mobile quarterback—somebody who’s electric and elusive as Malik [Cunningham], it can take your stinger out a little bit and to some extent, you kind of need it out because if you go wild and willy-nilly, he’s gonna make you look silly, quick.”

It’s not just Cunningham that has the ability to give Kentucky’s defense a headache all night on Saturday—four of his receivers have the ability to ruin a defense’s confidence as well. Louisville’s leading receiver, Jordan Watkins, has hauled in 33 receptions for 508 yards and four touchdowns this season while Tyler Harrell has caught 14 passes for 443 yards for five scores, which is good for a whopping 31.6 yards per reception average on the season. They also have tight end Marshon Ford and freshman wide out Ahmari Huggins-Bruce who have combined for 817 yards and six touchdowns.

Kentucky’s defense knows the threat Cunningham and the rest of their offense poses, something UK pass rusher Josh Paschal has been preaching to his teammates this week at practice.

“[We have to] press the pocket, make sure that our rush lanes are right, that we’re not rushing past the quarterback and that he doesn’t have any rush lanes to step up and run through the middle and also [to stop him from going] up and out. Just making sure our rushing lanes are disciplined and we’re making sure that we’re controlling the quarterback.”

Cunningham’s 2,589 passing yards are more than Kentucky quarterback Will Levis has this season with 2,444 on the year, which makes it that more impressive to know Cunningham is less than 100 yards away from a 1,000-yard rushing season. Levis said he understands Cunningham’s talent is a testament to the attention he’s been receiving in the lead up to this game.

I think it’s well deserved; the kids are really really good player,” Levis said. “He’s just really fun to watch. Obviously we don’t focus too much on their offense preparing for the game, but I found myself a couple times just kind of flipping it over to kind of get a sense of who they are offensively just a little bit. Just the couple games that I’ve seen on TV have implied that all of the hype that he has gotten is definitely deserved and I’m excited to battle against him on Saturday.”

This season’s Kentucky-Louisville battle is expected to be an offensive shootout, which fans are clamoring for after the rivalry took a year off during the pandemic. With both teams gaining over 680 offensive yards in their last outing—expect a high-scoring offensive affair with Levis and Cunningham at the helm.