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Virginia defense preparing for challenge of stopping dynamic Louisville QB Malik Cunningham

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Virginia Louisville Football

Louisville quarterback Malik Cunningham, right, attempts to outrun the pursuit of Virginia defensive end Mandy Alonso, center, and outside linebacker Noah Taylor during last season’s game in Louisville, Ky.

During a season in which Louisville’s returning Heisman Trophy winner, former quarterback Lamar Jackson, shined again and earned a repeat invite to New York City as a finalist for college football’s premier award, the Cardinals’ optimism about their future at the position was growing behind the scenes at the same time.

Virginia cornerback Anthony Johnson began his career in the Derby City, and witnessed the early glimpses of hope now-standout Louisville signal-caller Malik Cunningham provided the program.

Johnson and Cunningham were part of the same 2017 recruiting class for Louisville and each redshirted that fall, and Johnson said he always believed Cunningham had a shot to evolve into a star.

“He’s a guy that can just take it,” Johnson recalled this week, “and we would have scrimmages, and when we were freshmen, he would go live and he was just hard to tackle for some of the veteran guys we had there.”

Johnson and Cunningham still chat these days, and Johnson is anticipating his pal will play when the Cardinals visit Scott Stadium for a noon encounter on Saturday.

Cunningham’s status is day-to-day, according to Louisville coach Scott Satterfield, after the QB absorbed a pair of hard hits in his team’s loss to Boston College this past weekend. If Cunningham can’t play — a decision only doctors will determine — Satterfield will turn to backup Brock Domann.

But UVa is practicing like it’ll match up with Cunningham, who has thrown for 65 touchdowns and rushed for 47 scores over 44 games at Louisville. This season, he’s thrown for 968 yards and three scores and rushed for 457 yards and nine touchdowns.

“You knew just having a quarterback room with Lamar Jackson,” Johnson continued, “somebody like that, with the mentorship for [Cunningham], that he would pan out to be a great quarterback.”

The Cavaliers have enlisted dual-threat freshman Delaney Crawford, an All-State track performer in his home state of California, to simulate the speed and playing style of Cunningham this week. Crawford is running the scout team, and Hoos defensive coordinator John Rudzinski said Crawford has done a nice job lengthening plays to give the defense a sense of how Cunningham will test the unit.

Rudzinski has experience coaching versus Cunningham, too. Last season while on staff at Air Force, the Falcons and the Cardinals squared off in the First Responder Bowl — a 31-28 win for Rudzinski’s side. His defense limited Cunningham to 207 passing yards, a passing touchdown, 63 rushing yards and a rushing touchdown. Air Force sacked Cunningham twice.

“They’re really well-coached,” Rudzinski said of the Cunningham-led offense. “They do a nice job running the ball and then they have nice complements in both play-action [pass] and then also drop-back pass, so as we know, [Cunningham] is a super-dynamic quarterback. He can make people miss in space and he can take an ordinary play and make it an extraordinary play.”

Said Johnson about the best way to slow Cunningham: “You’ve got to get him on the ground. He just does a great job of extending plays. He does a good job with his legs and he does a good job of looking downfield to hit open receivers.”

Cunningham tallied only one passing touchdown against UVa last season when the Cavaliers and the Cardinals met.

First-year UVa coach Tony Elliott said if Cunningham must miss Saturday’s bout, his squad doesn’t expect Satterfield to drastically alter Louisville’s offense.

UVa quarterbacks coach Taylor Lamb played quarterback for Satterfield when Satterfield held the same job at Appalachian State, and Lamb said his former coach’s system has grown since but is still similar.

“So, you can draw on some of the schematic things and they might be different,” Elliott said, “but it’s very difficult to reinvent what you’re doing in one week for somebody else.”

Domann, a journeyman in the sport, had stops at two junior colleges — Independence (Kan.) and San Bernardino Valley (Calif.) — before getting to Louisville last year. He appeared in the Cardinals’ blowout win over South Florida last month and in relief of Cunningham last week. He’s 6-of-16 for 92 yards and an interception.

“We’ve got to do things that’ll make it easier on [Domann],” Satterfield said regarding if his second-string quarterback is needed this week. “Find ways to get throws, easy completions and get him comfortable, and the running game helps and if we can get these backs rolling that’ll help him as well. But I think he’s got confidence and we’ve got confidence in him to make throws.”

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