Last Season: After spending the prior two seasons as one of the worst teams in pass protection, Louisville’s offensive line had better results in 2017. The Cardinals finished 104th in the country in sacks allowed (33), which is a 30% drop from 2016.
Where it shined, though, was in run blocking. According to footballoutsiders.com, Louisville was the #1 team in the country in these categories:
- Adjusted line yards (136.1; more on this statistic here)
- Passing down line yards per carry (4.61)
- Opportunity rate (49.5% of all of Louisville carries went for 5+ yards)
Louisville did have one weak spot in its run blocking stats, though. They ranked 72nd (66.7%) in power success rate, which as footballoutsiders.com explains, is the percentage of all carries in third-and-short (or fourth-and-short) situations that convert into first downs or touchdowns.
Personnel wise, only one starter (Geron Christian) has to be replaced on the offensive line)
Predicted Starters, left tackle to right tackle: Mekhi Becton, Lukayus McNeil, Cole Bentley, Kenny Thomas, Linwood Foy
Fortunately for Louisville, they have sophomore Mekhi Becton ready to take over Christian’s vacated spot at left tackle. Becton possesses imposing size (6’7″, 355 lbs.) and had a really solid freshman season at right tackle in 2017, earning Freshman All-American honors with 247 sports. Analytically, he was usually among the top freshmen weekly per PFF, which is impressive considering the rankings consisted of highly-touted players like Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor, Ohio State’s J.K. Dobbins and Texas’ Sam Ehlinger.
Anyway, Becton has a quick first step and great athleticism for his size. It’s not easy for a true freshman to come in and have production, but he especially held his own against some of college football’s elite at Clemson and Florida State. Bobby Petrino has touted Becton as possibly the best offensive player on his roster, and he may very well be. Becton is projected as a top pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, one that may pan out to be true if he continues his development.
Joining Becton as returning starters from last year will be guards Lukayus McNeil and Kenny Thomas, both of whom bring at least two years of experience at the position. Both also have experience starting at tackle, which could fill a void if injuries occur at the line or they need someone with more experience to anchor the right tackle spot. McNeil has been one of Louisville’s best blockers in the running game, and pairing him with Becton to form a strong side in the offense is more than ideal.
With Becton, McNeil and Thomas securing three of Louisville’s five spots on the offensive line, this leaves two up for grabs. One should go to sophomore Cole Bentley, who should start at either guard or center. Bentley made three starts last year, and during those games helped the team average 594.7 yards per game and 351.7 rushing. He plays with a mean streak and quickness that especially shows on running plays, making him an ideal interior lineman in Petrino’s system. He has experience at guard, but has held the starting center role since the spring and likely will hold it for this season.
If Bentley ends up as the starting center, the favorite to start at right tackle should be senior Linwood Foy. Foy has played in nine games in his career, and spent most of his time in JUCO as a right tackle. His tape showed some versatility in handling pass rushers outside and was able to wedge blockers inside to create big off-tackle runs.
Key Reserves: Robbie Bell, Toryque Bateman, Caleb Chandler
However, If Louisville chose to start Cole Bentley at guard, then Robbie Bell would likely return as their starting center in a lineup of Becton, McNeil, Bell, Bentley, and Thomas. That gives Louisville its most experienced lineup possible. Robbie Bell made all 13 starts last year at center, making him the most experienced backup in Louisville’s two-deep lineup.
Expect Louisville to start playing Toryque Bateman and Caleb Chandler in due time. Both redshirted last season, but were part of Louisville’s 2017 recruiting class that featured a lot of big-time offensive line recruits. Bateman likely has a future as Louisville’s right tackle in 2019 opposite of Becton, while Chandler will likely play inside at guard.
Outlook: In 2018, Louisville has a healthy mix of veteran and young linemen that could be one of the top units in the conference. Lukayus McNeil and Kenny Thomas return as some of Louisville’s most experienced players, while Mekhi Becton and Cole Bentley could potentially be all-conference players. If Becton can continue his development under Mike Summers and Bobby Petrino, he could end up as a top-tier prospect in the 2020 or 2021 NFL Drafts.
There are some concerns surrounding their depth at the position, as only Robbie Bell as substantial experience among the reserves. But as it stands, Louisville’s offensive line should be at its best in run blocking once again. It might not have another 1,000 yard rusher this season, with an expected even rotation in their running back group. But should still be one of the better units in the ACC.
Where this unit will need to improve on, though, is in pass protection. Lamar Jackson was able to bail the offense out many times with his world-class athleticism, and sometimes turning impossible situations into a big play. Figuring out life after Lamar Jackson has been the main talking point for Louisville football heading into 2018, but it’s for good reason; he did so much for their offense, and it’s not easy to replace that.
But that is where Louisville is in 2018. Pass protection will be a focal point as Louisville transitions to a more traditional spread offense with Jawon Pass starting. It will especially be prevalent, as Louisville faces several teams like Alabama, Clemson and Boston College with elite front sevens. A quick passing game, combined with more reliance on the running game, could be enough to erase some of the lofty sack totals from previous seasons.
But it will need to be better, as the competition Louisville faces in 2018 will be exactly that: better.