|Left Outside||Left Middle||Right Middle||Right Outside||Total|
|20+||0/1||3/3 (TD)||1/4 (TD)||4/8 (2 TD)|
|11-15||1/2||1/2 (INT)||2/3||1/1||5/8 (INT)|
|0||1/1||2/2 (TD)||2/2||5/5 (TD)|
|Total||2/3||2/5 (INT)||8/9 (2 TD)||7/12 (TD)||19/29 (3 TD, 1 INT)|
Outside the Pocket: 9/11 (2 TD, four throwaways)
Under Pressure: 4/9 (1 INT, four throwaways)
Red Zone: 3/3 (TD, plus two throwaways)
3rd/4th Down: 9/13 (1 TD, 1 INT)
Forced Adjustments: 2
Explosive Plays (25+ yards and/or touchdown): 5
Twelve quarterbacks in college football have over 300 yards passing on the season right now. Of those twelve, eight of them have only played one game. Louisville’s Micale Cunningham is one of those eight passers.
Cunningham, an on-and-off starter last season before fully taking the reins down the stretch, kicked off this season with a banger of a performance against in-state Group of Five squad, Western Kentucky. While Cunningham’s 55.9% completion percentage on the night wasn't so hot, that can be explained away. The redshirt junior quarterback was relentlessly fishing for shot plays. Four verticals, in addition to a smattering of hard play-action passes, were the name of the game for Scott Satterfield’s Louisville offense.
The barrage of deep passes got going early. On Louisville’s second drive of the game, Cunningham unleashed this bomb from deep in his own territory on 3rd-and-nine.
Louisville are running a variation of verticals from 3x1 with a condensed split from the X receiver on this play. The condensed X receiver opposite three receivers to the field usually indicates some sort of shallow crosser, which is exactly what the X runs here. Running a shallow towards the side all the vertical receivers start from is a common way to get a free runner into open space. Teams like Louisville, Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State are just a few examples of teams you may see a lot of this from.
At the snap, Cunningham directs his eyes to the free safety who floated towards the middle of the field. Cunningham keeps tabs on him throughout his drop back before coming to the conclusion that the free safety is sitting comfortably over the #3 (innermost) receiver running the vertical/bender. With the free safety sitting over #3, Cunningham knows the #2 receiver (middle) is going to be 1-on-1 down the hash and immediately lets it rip. The ball hits the receiver dead in stride about 45 yards later, ultimately giving the Cardinals a gain of 60 yards or so.
With the free safety playing more of a true deep middle, Cunningham had to let go of this ball sooner and rifle it into a tight window as opposed to letting it hang as he did on the first throw. WKU’s free safety was a bit more privy to what was going on this time around, but he still couldn’t beat Cunningham’s throw. Perhaps a better, faster Power Five safety would have punished Cunningham for this throw, but it is still encouraging for the second-year starter to show off the aggressiveness required to bail his team out of a tough spot.
Cunningham’s longest touchdown of the day came via a different twist on the deep passing game. Rather than the wide-open verticals, it was a heavy-personnel play-action shot that netted Cunningham a deep touchdown to senior wide receiver Dez Fitzpatrick.
In all honesty, credit for this play should be skewed toward Fitzpatrick instead of Cunningham. While Cunningham did a fine job letting the ball hang long enough for his receiver to find it, Fitzpatrick did an excellent job tracking the ball between two defenders with zero fear. Cutting across the deep safety’s face saved a potential interception and turned it into a touchdown. Props to Cunningham for letting his guy go and get it, which sometimes is all a quarterback needs to do, but this score is certainly a product of quality receiver play more than anything else.
Aside from verticals and play-action drop backs, Cunningham earned a chunk of his production on rollout passes. Dating back to last season (Satterfield’s first year in town), the cornerstone of Louisville’s offense has been zone running and rollout passes off said zone running concepts. In many ways, it is a more mobile version of what Sean McVay’s offense looks like in Los Angeles.
Cunningham rolled out by design on 11 of his 34 charted drop backs on Saturday. That would be nearly 33% of Cunningham’s drop backs for the evening. To say Cunningham’s use of rollouts is unique would be an understatement. For reference, the most frequent rollout user among the ten 2020 quarterbacks I charted was Utah State’s Jordan Love at just under 9%. As I’m sure my charting by the end of the year will show, this is no one-game occurrence either. 33% could be on the higher side for him, but I would bet anything he finishes the season at least above 15%, if not 20%.
Within the context of Satterfield’s offense, the abundance of rollouts are absolutely killer. Cunningham is exceptionally productive on them and they are a core part of the offense. With respect to what it means for Cunningham as a prospect, however, there is some reason for concern. This is anecdotal evidence more than anything, but in six-plus years of doing NFL draft work, I can not remember any quarterback prospects who rolled out nearly as often as Cunningham and went on to have NFL success.
Oftentimes, I find heavy-rollout offenses to be crutches for players who need the field condensed for them, which very well could be Satterfield’s thinking with Cunningham. The closest approximate off the top of my head is Nathan Peterman (Pitt), who recorded 44 rollouts on the 244 passing attempts I was able to chart. That comes out to just over 18% of the time, which is probably the floor for where I would wager Cunningham’s rollout usage rate will be.
Another somewhat concerning note on this game is that 21 of Cunningham’s 29 pass attempts were on the right side of the field. That is true in part because of the rollouts, which Louisville tends to call towards the right sideline, but that only emphasized the point. Naturally, right-handed quarterbacks tend to be worse when throwing to their left, especially when on the move to the left. Splits as stark as this, however, are rare. We don’t tend to see quarterbacks throw more than two-thirds of their passes in a given game to the right side of the field. And that is not even accounting for Cunningham’s four throwaways, all of which he threw to the right sideline.
If anything can be gleaned from this game, on top of knowing what we already know about Cunningham from last year, it is this: Cunningham is limited in what he can do as a passer, but he is exceptional at those few things. As an NFL prospect, that means Cunningham is likely a Day 3 project who will absolutely need a few years of seasoning before being ready to see the field. That may change as this season rolls on, but it feels like the most reasonable outcome for him right now.
With respect to his college effectiveness, however, Cunningham is equipped to be one of the most productive passers in the country. The college game is much more forgiving to offenses who run fewer concepts, especially when those few concepts are executed as well as Cunningham executes them. Save for the Clemson game, Cunningham was hyper-explosive and almost entirely avoided turnovers last season. If Cunningham can step things up just a bit this year and show up against bigger opponents such as Miami and Notre Dame, it’s hard to imagine many quarterbacks will finish the season with better numbers than him.