Not long after finishing up a post-practice interview and retreating to the locker room, Virginia defensive back Anthony Johnson came back out to the practice field brandishing his cell phone.
“This is the guy,” Johnson yelled into the phone, before pushing the device toward a reporter’s face.
On the other end of the line — Louisville quarterback Malik Cunningham, Johnson’s former teammate and the focal point of a Cardinals’ offense that Johnson and UVa will be tasked with containing on Saturday.
Cunningham offered some praise for Johnson, who played at Louisville from 2017-2020 before transferring to Virginia, then wrapped up the impromptu interview with some colorful trash talk before Johnson reclaimed his phone.
“That’s my boy,” Johnson said. “Malik is my guy.”
Johnson said that, during his time in Louisville, he appreciated and respected Cunningham’s competitiveness, leadership and willingness to play through pain as much as the dual-threat quarterback’s considerable skill set.
“Whatever it takes for him to get the job done, he’ll do it,” said Johnson.
Cunningham will be playing against UVa (3-2, 1-2 ACC) for the fourth time in his Louisville career. He’s 1-2 against the Cavaliers and he’s amassed gaudy numbers in the matchup.
He’s 25 for 40 for 322 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions all-time against Virginia, and has rushed 41 times for 322 yards and three scores in those games for the Cardinals (3-2, 1-1).
“On a scale of whatever dangerousnesses there are, I would put him at the top of the dangerous scale,” said Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall. “On any given play, he's a threat.”
Cunningham’s production against the Cavaliers is particularly impressive because UVa has not been a defense that’s struggled containing mobile quarterbacks, on the whole, since Mendenhall took over before the 2016 season.
In fact, in his 67 games as coach at Virginia, there have only been six opposing quarterbacks to rush for 100 yards or more against his defense, and three of those were out of the triple-option. (Georgia Tech’s Ta’Quon Marshall did it twice and Navy’s Malcolm Perry did it in the 2018 Military Bowl.)
North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell ran for 112 yards against the Cavaliers’ in their third game this season.
Last season, Cunningham ran for 197 yards and two touchdowns in the Cardinals’ 31-17 loss to UVa at Scott Stadium. That performance snapped a streak of 22 straight games without yielding 100 yards to an opposing quarterback.
In 2017, Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson ran for 147 yards and a score.
There are, however, a couple of sizeable asterisks during that stretch. In 2016, Mendenhall’s first season, UVa nearly upset Louisville and Jackson on Oct. 29, before falling 32-25. Jackson, who threw for 361 yards and four scores that afternoon, was officially credited with 88 rushing yards.
That includes the 33 yards he lost on five sacks, though.
Similarly, in 2019, Cunningham ran for 97 yards in a 27-21 Cardinals’ win in Louisville, a total that includes the yardage he lost on three sacks.
Asked if he could compare Cunningham to any other quarterback he’s faced in college, Virginia senior safety Nick Grant paused and then laughed.
“No. Honestly, if I’m going to be honest, no,” said Grant. “He’s electric and he can run all over any team in the nation.”
For a Virginia defense that has, overall, done a more-than-respectable job bottling up dual-threat quarterbacks, Cunningham causes a particularly throbbing headache for players at every position. The Cavaliers have never won in Louisville in four tries and keeping Cunningham under control figures to be a key to reversing that trend.
“You’ve got to cover and you’ve got to get him,” said Virginia co-defensive coordinator Nick Howell. “So it stresses everybody more. … He has our full attention, for sure.”