TCI recently spoke with Cameron Teague to get some insight on Louisville ahead of Clemson’s game against the Cardinals. Teague covers Louisville football as a beat writer for the Louisville Courier Journal.
Teague hit on a number of topics during the following question-and-answer session, including the play of QB Malik Cunningham, Louisville’s offensive approach as a whole, the Cardinals’ defensive looks and more heading into Saturday’s game.
Note: This interview was edited and condensed for clarity
What’s the identity of this Louisville team?
It changes a lot. Coming into the year, I think everybody thought it would be a defensive team or the defense would carry them early as the offense figured out its identity. Early on, the defense kind of struggled and the passing game looked a lot better than people thought. The last couple of weeks, it’s been the run game and the defense has been everything you thought it would be.
They’ve run for over 200 yards in each of the last four games. So that’s where it starts. Their heart and soul is quarterback Malik Cunningham, and then defensively they want to play a bend-but-don’t-break type of defense and try to get off the field on third downs.
Speaking of Cunningham, Dabo Swinney called him “Lamar-esque” in reference to another dangerous Louisville dual-threat quarterback, Lamar Jackson. To whom would you compare Cunningham’s playing style?
I try to not to compare him to Lamar because he and Lamar are really close. Malik calls Lamar his big brother, and it’s just so hard to compare somebody to one of the greatest college football quarterbacks of all-time. But, at times, he looks like Lamar. Against Boston College, he had three or four runs that made you open your eyes wide with jukes and spins. He has a pretty good deep ball when he’s comfortable in the pocket. Against N.C. State, he had it in the first quarter. I think he was banged up against N.C. State toward the end of the game and then kind of just got uncomfortable.
But I don’t know who I’d say I compare him to. I think the closest one just because I think maybe he’s in a Louisville uniform and he’s a dual-threat guy is Lamar, but I think Lamar had a little better of an arm than Malik does. It’s hard to find a comparison, but he does a lot of things well. When he’s locked in on both sides, running and passing, he’s really hard to stop.
He’s completing better than 63% of his passes for his career. Is he more dangerous as a passer than he might get credit for?
He had a 39% completion percentage against N.C. State. Louisville dropped six passes. His passes were a little off, but he can be that guy. He’s been a lot better in the pocket this year. Sits through pressure. Even when he scrambles, he’s keeping his head downfield. So Clemson can’t just spy him and say, “OK, we’re going to contain his legs.” He can throw the ball, and he will beat you with his arm. He was terrific against UCF. Outstanding against Wake Forest and Virginia. He can beat you with his arm if you let him.
What about his supporting cast?
They’re going to have a three-back system. Jalen Mitchell, freshman Trevion Cooley and then Hassan Hall will be the three guys probably in that order. Each usually gets a drive to start and then they kind of go from there. Receiving-wise, Marshon Ford I think is one of most dynamic tight ends in the ACC. I don’t know that he ever gets enough credit in the conference. He’s really good. He’s an NFL guy I think maybe next year. And then outside, Jordan Watkins is a freshman. He’s been terrific for Malik this year. Justin Marshall has come on a little bit. True freshman Ahmari Huggins-Bruce has a lot of speed in the slot. And then their fastest guy is Tyler Harrell, who Louisville loves to take deep shots with. They love to run him out on a play-action post or something like that and try to get him over the top.
Louisville can play keepaway with the best of them, ranking in the top 25 nationally in time of possession (31 minutes, 40 seconds). How have the Cardinals done it?
It’s different than a couple of years ago. When (Louisville coach Scott Satterfield) got here in 2019, their offense, they were scoring quickly. They were scoring with big plays. They just don’t have the guys they had then. Tutu Atwell is gone. Desmond Fitzpatrick is gone. So this year’s team is a little bit more methodical. The offensive line is kind of the strength of the offense and running the ball if they can stay ahead of the sticks. Their biggest thing is trying to convert on third down. They’ve been really bad at it, so usually if they avoid third downs and convert on second down, they’re in a pretty good spot.
But they’ve added some quick game. They run a lot of mesh concepts. A lot of curls. A lot of hitches. Things like that to keep the offense moving. I think they realized early on the big plays, the boom-or-bust type of offense, isn’t going to work for this group. They have to be methodical and efficient with their offense.
Defensively, Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott talked this week about Louisville’s cover-3 scheme and all the different variations of that the Cardinals run. How would you describe their defensive approach and what that looks like?
I feel like Louisville has a different kind of coverage every game. (Defensive coordinator) Bryan Brown is very aggressive with his defense. Against Boston College, they ran a lot of man. And even at times against N.C. State, they just manned up their corners and said, “OK, we’re going to stop the run game and make your quarterback beat us.” It worked for all of the Boston College game and nearly all of the N.C. State game until the offense just couldn’t do anything. But they’ll run some cover 3. They’ll run some cover 2 as well. Cover 2, I think they’re kind of trying to get out of because it was just getting beat up by Wake and Virginia, so I have’t seen them run as much of that lately.
But they’re aggressive. They want to get after the quarterback. (Brown) is going to send corners and linebackers. He might sometimes send a safety and just hope the corners on the back end can help them out. The big thing for Louisville, their all-ACC corner, Kei’Trel Clark is out for the year now. So that’s going to hurt. I’m curious to see how they make up for that on the back end. They have some pretty young corners who I think are going to have to step up.
Louisville’s 12.7 yards per punt return ranks 24th in the FBS. Could that be an X-factor in this game?
I think a lot of that was off Braden Smith. He had a punt return for a touchdown earlier in the year I believe, and he’s out for the year. Some kind of knee ligament injury. They never said exactly, but he had that against Florida State. Jordan Watkins, who’s been taking the punts, has been pretty good back there. He’s popped a few and had a really good one in one of the last two games that ended up getting called back for a penalty. So I think if they can flip the field, that will help them a lot.
Against N.C. State, they were just pinned deep the whole first half and couldn’t really get out of that hole. I think Louisville is going to have to find something because Clemson, it’s just been close game after close game after close game with them. (Louisville) is going to have to find something to kind of break out of that mold, and I think the punt return game or the kick return game could help them a lot there.
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