I find the backup quarterback position to be one of the most unique on a football team. It’s not like a backup at other positions that will be rotated in and out frequently. The backup QB is rarely guaranteed reps. Most of the time coaches hope he never has to play. When the starter is struggling, he is the fans’ favorite player. He has to prepare as if he’s the starter each and every week because he’s only one play away from being called upon. Still, for most guys, that day doesn’t ever come.
Such was the situation Mason Cunningham, Liberty’s backup quarterback, found himself in last year. As Buckshot’s backup, of whom Coach Gill said would not be challenged for his starting position entering 2018, Cunningham played in exactly 1 football game. He played in the 2nd half of the Morehead State game, Liberty’s second game of the season, after the Flames raced out to a 45-10 halftime lead. In that game, Cunningham was 4-for-10 passing for 46 yards and 1 interception.
“You have to approach every week like you’re the starter,” Cunningham said of being a backup quarterback, “Because you’re one play away. Being prepared to take that role as soon as you have to, you never know when it’s going to come.”
This past spring, redshirt-freshman and walk-on Landon Brown pushed Cunningham for the opportunity to be Buckshot’s backup. So much so that Turner Gill said he was thinking about redshirting Cunningham in 2018 if Brown proved he was capable of being 2nd string. Despite redshirting in 2017, Brown still had the opportunity to travel with the team to every game to get the feel of what gameday is like for a quarterback at the Division I level.
“For him to come in in the spring and compete, it was really nice to see that he didn’t just go through the motions of redshirting,” Offensive Coordinator and quarterbacks coach Joe Dailey said of Brown. “He was able to download and retain information, and then demonstrate that he knew it this fall camp. He did a really good job of throwing the ball downfield. When he throws the ball, it’s a beautiful thing. He showed us that he can do those things, and he can manage the offense.”
In addition to Cunningham and Brown, Liberty brought in a true freshman this year in Brandon “Pop” Robinson. He’s a 6’4″ prospect from Irvington High School in Maplewood, New Jersey. He met Coach Dailey in May of his junior season and the two stayed in contact throughout his senior year.
“(He has) a huge ceiling,” Dailey said of Robinson. “(He) has a really bright future. He’s a guy that is raw and under-recruited coming out of high school. He wants to know all the details, which is encouraging to see that from a young quarterback. Most of those guys want to get out there and throw the ball. He wants to learn the details, and it’s good to see that. He’s really athletic. He’s a big, tall cat, but he can actually run with the football really well. That’s exciting to see. He has a big arm, he can throw the ball downfield. You look at those 3 things – his ability to be detail oriented, his athleticism, his ability to throw the ball down the field – and you get excited about the future.”
As training camp comes to a close and the Flames begin to look towards the season opener on Saturday against Old Dominion, Cunningham will be listed as 2nd on the depth chart. He could still end up redshirting if he plays in 4 games or less which would put him one year behind Buckshot, giving him the opportunity to compete for the starting position in 2020. Brown will be 3rd on the depth chart and the team’s holder while Robinson will redshirt.
“Mason has phenomenal leadership skills,” said Dailey. “He rallies the troops and gets the guys together. He climbed the ladder as far as his mastery of what we’re trying to do and where we’re trying to go with the football. This fall camp was an opportunity for him to show us he has total understanding of what we want to do at all times. I thought he did a good job of managing the offense and demonstrating his confidence in regards to what we’re trying to do.”
Cunningham has some experience as a backup, a role he had his freshman year of high school. His role, he says, is all about making Buckshot and the team better.
“It’s all about making Buck better and making the team better. I want to make sure he’s sharp with his reads and challenging him. I feel like that’s the biggest thing for a backup QB.”
“No matter who it is back there,” Dailey explained, “I feel confident in our ability to being able to get the guy prepared mentally and physically.”