LOUISVILLE, Ky. (KT) — The long wait is nearly over for Malik Cunningham.
"It's a feeling that I've been waiting for my whole life," he said.
The University of Louisville quarterback will celebrate his 20th birthday a couple of weeks early when he makes his first collegiate start Saturday afternoon as the Cardinals (2-1) kick off its Atlantic Coast Conference season against Virginia (2-1) at 12:30 in Scott Stadium in Charlottesville.
"I've waited for the opportunity to prove what I can do," says Cunningham, who will turn 20 on Oct. 6. "I just have to keep going and keep working."
A redshirt freshman who started the season as the backup to Jawon Puma Pass, Cunningham was named the starter Monday by coach Bobby Petrino after rallying the Cardinals to back-to-back victories over Indiana State (31-7) and Western Kentucky (20-17).
In both games, he took a page out of Lamar Jackson's playbook and did a lot of his damage with his running ability. Even after lost yardage on sacks is subtracted, he is by far Louisville’s leading rusher with 183 yards on 32 carries, an average gain of 5.5 yards per carry.
"That is just how I play, it's just natural," he said Wednesday. "I like to make plays with my feet and try to make things happen on each and every play."
In the process of guiding the Cards to a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns in the come-from-behind win over WKU last Saturday, Cunningham became only the fourth quarterback in Louisville history to rush for over 100 yards per game, totaling 129 on 21 carries.
That came as no surprise to Western coach Mike Sanford, who believes there is much more to come because of Cunningham's ability to create positive yardage with his speed and agility.
"I knew he was special," Sanford said. "He's going to continue to make plays out of nothing, quite frankly. That is what he did (against WKU). Obviously, there are some great designs for him in the run game. But 129 yards rushing, many of which were on pass plays that were covered and him making somebody miss in space, that's tough to defend."
Petrino, asked about Cunningham's elusiveness as a ballcarrier and how much of it is coaching compared to natural skill, quipped, "He couldn't do that at all until he got here. It’s all coaching."
Still smiling, he added: "He's just a great athlete. A tremendous athlete."
The early knock on Cunningham was that he doesn't have as strong an arm as Pass. But he's definitely improving in that area and he showed his potential by winging a long pass on the money to wide receiver Jaylen Smith streaking down the sideline against Western. It was a sure touchdown, but Smith let the ball slide through his hands.
"It is technique and the whole summer being in the weight room that has improved his arm strength," quarterbacks coach Nick Petrino said. "He always threw the ball well, but he struggled with certain throws because he wasn't that strong. Now, you can see him make throws from one sideline to the other."
"I've improved a lot," Cunningham said. "The coaches have helped me improve as a passer from my first day here. I couldn't even close my shoulder, and now I can close it. I'm progressing every day. I've also gotten stronger; they're trying to get me bigger and stronger."
With Pass hobbled by a turf toe injury suffered against Indiana State, Cunningham got more reps last week and was told by coaches that he might see action against WKU. This week Bobby Petrino's early announcement removed the uncertainty and gave Cunningham a mental boost into preparations for Virginia.
"Once coach announced, we've definitely seen a little spark in him," Nick Petrino said. "That's how he's always been. He's always been a guy who brings good energy. I think he saw it coming and I think he's happy that it was announced now.
"We always want our backups ready — they're preparing themselves to play — but it's always in the back of their minds that they might not get in. So I think it's a big difference with him knowing he's going to be the one going out there for the first play."
And, he hopes, many more after that as the Cards try to snap out of their offensive funk and win their ACC opener for the third year in a row.
Russ Brown, a former sportswriter for The Courier-Journal and USA Today, covers University of Louisville sports and college basketball and football for Kentucky Today. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.