Last season: Plain and simple, this was a young group that experienced some major growing pains last season. Louisville started a lot of freshmen at basically every position on the line except for center (which, ironically, was manned by an upperclassmen). In spite of their youth, and facing some top notch defensive lines like Texas A&M and Clemson, Louisville showed some great potential in run blocking in the latter half of the season, and did a stellar job in pass protection against a strong A&M pass rush in the Music City Bowl.
With that said, the pass blocking was among the worst in the entire country for most of the season. They finished the season 110th in stuff rate (Louisville had almost 25% of all runs stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage), 127th in standard downs sack rate and 105th in passing downs sack rate, according to Football Outsiders.
Louisville will have to replace Aaron Epps and Kelby Johnson due to graduation, while former starters Skylar Lacy, Pedro Sibiea and T.C. Klusman left the program.
This season: It goes without saying that if Louisville finds themselves having problems again with the offensive line, the team may not be able to live to its high expectations. However, conventional wisdom suggests that this unit will improve, and that will be a great thing for Louisville in 2016.
Geron Christian anchors the line as arguably the center piece of it for the next two or three years. Christian, who is the brother of former Louisville player Gerald, was an honorable mention for All-ACC honors, and the only player from last season to start all 13 games. He will start at left tackle as a true sophomore, guarding Lamar Jackson’s blind side. Most people are generally high on Geron Christian, and he certainly has the potential to be in the NFL if his development continues. Lukayus McNeil will be the likely starter at right tackle, after earning nine starts last season as a redshirt freshman.
The guard positions enter this season as the only major question mark. Bobby Petrino mentioned that Kiola Mahoni and Khalil Hunter would begin practices as the first-team guys. Mahoni started in four games last year, and he and Hunter have solid athleticism and potential for both guard spots. Hunter is one guy that I am really excited to see take the field, and he could be in position to have a solid season.
One guy to keep an eye on is sophomore Kenny Thomas. Thomas is a sophomore that started five games last season at both guard and tackle, and likely will see the field at some point. Petrino has often times used a package featuring six offensive linemen to get a push in the running game, and with Thomas as a solid run blocker, he could be that “sixth man” coming off the bench. You could see him or backup tackle Danny Burns as that rotational player coming in for those heavy formations.
At center, Louisville will return Tobijah Hughley for one more season. He brings valuable experience at the position, with 24 starts in the last two seasons and a fifth-year senior in the program. Hughley is one of the most impressive offensive linemen on the team in run blocking, and is one of the team captains after being a walk-on for most of his college career. However, Hughley must avoid the snap infractions that put Louisville’s young offense in tough positions, causing drives to end prematurely after establishing some momentum.
Overall, the offensive line is young and still needs a little more game experience to be a well-polished group. But if the offensive line improves even a little bit, you’ll definitely see Louisville live up to the expectations that have been placed this season.