Last Year: It was a brutal finish for the Louisville offensive line in 2016. The Cards ranked 126th in sacks allowed (47), including an FBS-worst 33 on road/neutral site games. The team had a very bad stretch towards the end, with 27 sacks allowed in the final four games (including 11 at Houston and eight versus LSU). Since Bobby’s return to Louisville, the Cardinals have allowed 131 sacks, one of the worst in the FBS in that span.
In the offseason, Mike Summers was hired from Florida to become the co-offensive coordinator and offensive line coach at Louisville. Former O-line coach Chris Klenakis moved to tight ends coach this season.
Projected Starters: Geron Christian, Lukayus McNeil, Robbie Bell, Kenny Thomas, Cole Bentley/Mekhi Becton
If you look at the numbers, it was essentially a tale of two seasons for the offensive line. In five of the first six games, Louisville only allowed one sack in each of those games; other than the Duke game, the offense looked in sync and nearly unstoppable.
The rest? 42 sacks allowed, including 27 in the final four games, and an offense that lacked complete rhythm. There are multiple reasons why Louisville’s offensive line was bad; linemen were constantly beat on the first step and never allowed to re-anchor, mental mistakes (Louisville was 119th in penalties per game last season), or Jackson was sometimes trying to make too much happen. Either way, it’s hard to avoid criticism when you have plays like this:
Louisville's offensive line straight up just doesn't bother to block defensive linemen pic.twitter.com/ZpPk6pBHmt
— Chris B. Brown (@smartfootball) December 31, 2016
With that said, Geron Christian is one guy that U of L can consistently rely on. The junior has started all 26 games at left tackle, which is a huge sigh of relief. Last season, Christian earned third-team All-ACC honors from coaches, and enters this season as one of the top offensive linemen in the conference, likely positioning himself as an NFL Draft prospect in either 2018 or 2019.
Lukayus McNeil is the only other full-time starter returning for Louisville, with 21 starts at both guard and tackle. McNeil spent most of last year at right tackle, but likely will move to guard to provide experience in the interior. It would especially benefit McNeil, who excels at run blocking. Pairing him with Christian to form a strong side for running plays could open lanes for tail backs.
This leads into the other three spots that Louisville has to replace. Robbie Bell has been the projected starting center since the spring, and will likely hold it. The redshirt freshman carries a bigger frame than his predecessor (former three-year starter Tobijah Hughley), but lacks college-level experience. Bell could slide over to guard, if injuries shore up this season, but his smaller frame benefits him more as a center.
Whoever ends up starting at right guard and tackle, though, is a complete mystery. Kenny Thomas will likely man one of those spots, leaving either true freshman guard Cole Bentley or tackle Mekhi Becton to take the last starting spot. Thomas has starting experience in his three years at Louisville, and like McNeil, can play either guard or tackle. Louisville has typically brought him in heavy packages as a sixth offensive linemen, but having him as a full-time starter on the line could add a valuable punch in run blocking.
Between Bentley and Becton, they headline a 2017 recruiting class where Bobby Petrino and his staff emphasized getting linemen with impressive size and a mean streak. Bentley is a local kid from Belfry High School, with impressive quickness and enrolled early to get some significant reps in spring ball. With Becton, he boasts incredible size (6’7″, 330+ lbs.) already and is an ideal fit for right tackle.
That said, there is an obvious risk with putting two true freshmen (and a third starter with minimal college experience) as starters. It’s cliche to say that athletes have to adjust to the speed of college football, but when the athletes are better overall, this will be a trial by fire for most of Louisville’s offensive line. If they shows signs of dysfunction early, it’ll be a long season for Louisville, and possibly see their reserves take the field quicker than expected.
Key Reserves: Toryque Bateman, Caleb Chandler, Ronald Rudd
These three, along with Bentley and Becton, were the big hauls for the Louisville recruiting class in 2017. Bateman will likely be the backup left tackle, and inherit the spot once Geron Christian leaves. He has stellar size for a true freshman (6’6″, 311 lbs.) and solid fundamentals in his technique. Despite being a backup (for now), he arguably has the biggest upside of any Louisville lineman in his class.
Chandler was another big-time get for the Cardinals. An all-state player from Georgia, he shows tremendous strength and hand-fighting on his high school tape. He’ll likely be a starter one day, but for now, is solid depth behind McNeil and the others.
Ronald Rudd rounds off the offensive line prospects, as one of the top JUCO talents on the roster. He could be in line for a starting spot, if Thomas or the freshman struggle early in the season.
The hiring of Mike Summers has sparked a lot of hope for Louisville fans, for two reasons: the type of players he coached up in his first run at Louisville with Petrino (former draftees Jason Spitz and Eric Wood, come to mind), and the young talent that they acquired on the recruiting trail. Summers has also had extensive experience with Petrino at Louisville and Arkansas, and those two could achieve similar success that they had at both schools.
Christian and McNeil are solid anchors to start with, but can the new faces gel together quickly? That has been the crux of nearly every major discussion with the Louisville offense this year, and for good reason. When Louisville’s offensive line performs well, the offense is as explosive as any in the country. But being able to do it consistently has been the issue dating back to Bobby’s return, and improving that aspect will go a long way towards making them a contender.
Be sure to read our other preseason previews: