Clemson’s task of trying to slow down a dual-threat quarterback will continue this week when the Tigers head to Louisville, where the Cardinals have a signal caller that’s drawing comparisons to one of their former Heisman Trophy winners.
Malik Cunningham is the latest quarterback to come through Derby City that can do damage with both his arms and his legs. He’s has already accounted for 2,164 yards of offense through eight games, including 480 on the ground. That’s run his career rushing total to 2,068 yards, making him one of two Louisville quarterbacks to ever run for 2,000 career yards.
The other? Lamar Jackson, who accounted for 457 yards and three scores when he faced Clemson in 2016 — the same season in which Jackson won college football’s most coveted individual award.
“If you look statistically, there’s some similarities between those two guys for sure,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “He’s definitely Lamar-esque for sure. He keeps you up at night. He can really create and turn a bad play into a good play.”
Cunningham has already rushed for 13 touchdowns this season, tied for tops in the ACC. But he’s far from a one-tricky pony. He’s completed nearly 64% of his passes this season for 1,684 yards and eight scores. He’s thrown for more than 6,800 yards and 51 touchdowns in his career and is the only Louisville quarterback to ever throw four touchdown passes of at least 75 yards.
Swinney compared the 6-foot-1, 200-pounder’s skill set to a blend of what Clemson has already seen out of Syracuse’s Garrett Shrader and Florida State’s Jordan Travis. At 6-4 and 230 pounds, Shrader, the ACC’s sixth-leading rusher, is a bigger-bodied quarterback that has the power to match his long-strided speed. Meanwhile, Travis is a quicker, more slippery signal caller that can be harder for defenses to get their hands on.
“Similar to Shrader, but he’s more elusive than Shrader,” Swinney said. “Maybe not quite as elusive as Travis, but he’s kind of in between there. He’s dangerous.”
Clemson bottled up Shrader and Travis, a big reason why the Tigers beat Syracuse and FSU. Shrader had a season-low 6 net yards on seven carries while Travis was even less effective with his 16 carries going for minus-4 yards. Clemson got to him for a season-high six sacks.
Cunningham hasn’t had much success against Clemson either. He played against the Tigers in 2018 and 2019, going a combined 9 of 21 passing for 184 yards. His nine carries against the Tigers in those games netted just 7 yards, and Clemson won those games by a combined 96 points.
But the experience Cunningham has gained since, Swinney said, is the biggest difference between him and the other dual threats Clemson has seen this season. A fifth-year junior, Cunningham has played in 40 career games and doesn’t figure to be easily confused by whatever Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables tries to throw at him this weekend.
“He really understands their scheme,” Swinney said. “I don’t know how many games he’s started, but he’s been there a long time, and that matters. He’s got a really good feel for defensive football, structure and coverage. Where to go with it. When to run. When not to run. All of those things.”
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