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Micale Cunningham Making History of His Own

By Jim Johnson
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In Micale Cunningham, Scott Satterfield and Dwayne Ledford have found all they could possibly have asked for in a quarterback and then some.

In Micale Cunningham, Scott Satterfield and Dwayne Ledford have found all they could possibly have asked for in a quarterback and then some.

Two years after trotting out the best quarterback in college football history, and one year after suffering through a season that made any sort of short term turnaround borderline unthinkable, the Cardinals once more have one of the best quarterbacks in the country.

It goes without saying, this offense is much different from the Lamar Jackson one man show.

For example, in both 2016 and 2017 Jackson accounted for around 74% of Louisville’s total offense. Thus far in 2019, Cunningham is responsible for approximately 40%, and even only counting the games he’s started, it’s just over 50%.

However, the results have been much the same. In 2016 and 2017, Louisville ranked 4th and 3rd, respectively, in yards per play, and 14th and 13th in points per drive. After dropping to 98th and 125th in those two metrics in 2018, they are now back to 11th in yards per play, and, against FBS teams, 28th in points per drive.

In fact, according to OAYP, which takes those two numbers and adjusts them for strength of opposing defenses, they have been one of the ten best offenses in the nation this season.

Obviously, the means in which the production is acquired has changed, but the ends have not.

Both approaches have their merits, to be sure, but the current method is far more sustainable than the old one. Relying on the most dynamic player to ever grace a football field absolutely works, but those guys are in short supply. Right now, he’s a little busy playing for the Ravens and leading the NFL MVP race.

The Satterfield-Ledford philosophy is far more sustainable, and, in some ways, just as difficult to prepare for.

As has always been the case for Satterfield’s offenses, they’re at their best when the quarterback isn’t really the focal point of the offense. To that end, they’re most deadly when there’s really not a focal point at all. At App State, in his four years as a starter under Satterfield, Taylor Lamb never accounted for more than 58% of their total offense. And, outside of his senior year, the number really hovered around 50%. Then, last year, for Zac Thomas, it was only 45%, and he was still named the league’s Offensive Player of the Year.

His offenses have also been at their best with an efficient dual-threat quarterback (check), a dynamite running back (check), and a complementary group of pass catchers (check).

With all of those checkmarks, Cunningham’s supporting cast obviously deserves some credit. Running backs Javian Hawkins and Hassan Hall rank 4th and 12th, respectively in OAYP, among fellow ACC RB’s. Tutu Atwell is #3 among receivers, while Dez Fitzpatrick and Seth Dawkins sit at 13th and 14th. And Marshon Ford is the league’s #5 TE, per the formula, with the offensive line, as a unit, currently ranked 4th.

Surrounded by good players that this staff has figured out how to most effectively deploy, he’s not doing it all on his own the way Jackson did because he doesn’t have to. Yet, even with all of the burgeoning young talent at his disposal -- namely Hawkins and Atwell -- none of them are having the potentially historic season that he is.

Currently OAYP #4 qualifying QB in Southern Pigskin’s entire coverage area (really #3, given Tua Tagovailoa’s unfortunate injury), only behind Heisman frontrunner Joe Burrow, pre-injury Tagovailoa, and Clemson star Trevor Lawrence, he deserves to be mentioned right alongside the very best in the game.

His raw production may not stack up to the Burrow’s and Jalen Hurts’ of the world, but, from an efficiency standpoint, he absolutely does.

Factoring in his rushing proficiency, he ranks 8th in the FBS in total offensive yardage per play, and second in the ACC, only behind Travis Etienne. His passer rating against FBS opponents ranks 4th, behind Tagovailoa, Burrow, and Hurts -- one spot above Ohio State standout Justin Fields. His touchdown rate is higher than any of those four aforementioned passers, and his 11.8 yards per attempt are tied with Hurts for the best mark in America.

Moreover, if he maintains that 11.8 YPA clip, that would also break Kyler Murray’s current record for the highest single season average ever, which he set last season with an 11.6 YPA average.

A quarterback’s job, first and foremost, isn’t to compile the most yards or score the most touchdowns or throw the ball the hardest or run the fastest or anything remotely like that. A quarterback’s primary goal is, or at least should be, to best put his team in a position to succeed by any means necessary.

Now, those things aren’t mutually exclusive. In some cases, like with Lamar Jackson, for example, the former and the latter were identical. However, with Cunningham, he’s achieving the latter without having to do the former.

It’s important to appreciate both.

Micale Cunningham hasn’t just had a great season, he’s been perfect for what Louisville wants to do within the confines of Scott Satterfield and Dwayne Ledford’s offense.

His raw numbers don’t have to be out of this world because no one’s asking them to be.

Efficiency is the name of his game.

When it’s all said and done, this season, from that perspective, at least by way of yards per attempt, could be the most efficient ever.

Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP