By Dalton Ray–
The last offensive position group in TLC’s position breakdown is the most important group: the line. Last week, U of L’s tight ends were the focus.
The most important position group in football is the offensive line. There isn’t a championship-level football team, at any level, that doesn’t have an above average offensive line.
If a team has a good line that can hold blocks, the hogs upfront are able to sweep a lot of problems under the rug. If the running backs aren’t great at finding their running lanes, the sustained blocks from the line can give backs a bigger window of time to locate those lanes. If the receivers aren’t good at creating separation, the extra time given by the five up front gives wide-outs and the quarterback a chance to make something happen.
Louisville’s offensive line play last season was poor. Head coach Bobby Petrino used 11 different starters and offensive line coach Chris Klenakis was pulling his hair out all season. After a slew of transfers and graduations, the offensive line group is much thinner this year. The Cardinals now have the size up front that can match up with any team. Three linemen are 6-foot-6, the average height of the group is 6-foot-3 and the starting crew weighs over 1,500 lbs.
How bad was the line last year you ask? They allowed 44 sacks last year, which placed them second-worst in the nation. Their 311 yards lost due to sacks was worst in the nation. U of L allowed 98 tackles for loss last year, an average of seven tackles for loss a game and a total loss of 430 yards. Out of 127 teams in the NCAA, the Cards ranked 122 in opponent tackles for loss allowed. Between sacks and tackles for loss, U of L lost 741 yards in their 13 games.
Projected starters: LT- Geron Christian, LG- Kenny Thomas, C- Tobijah Hughley, RG- Kiola Mahoni, RT- Lukayus McNeil
There are four returning starters, including three sophomores in Christian, Thomas and McNeil. The good news about those sophomores is, in theory, their three spots should be locked down over the next two or three years. The bad news is three freshman, including two true freshman, are forced into playing time.
Christian and Thomas, both 6-foot-6 and 320 lbs, should be able to hold their own on the left side of the line. The left tackle is the second most important spot on the line, behind the center, taking care of the quarterback’s blind side. The pair of stellar sophomores are responsible for nearly half of the career starts of the group. The most consistent linemen from last year now have bigger expectations placed upon them.
The most important spot on the line is held down by Hughley. Over the past 11 years, U of L has only had four centers: Eric Wood, Mario Benavides, Jake Smith and Hughley. That’s an extremely impressive number but Hughley doesn’t match up with the previous three. Because of Hughley, U of L fans now know exactly what a snap infraction is after watching Hughley do it for the past two years. Now a senior, fans are hoping the former walk-on from Lexington can anchor the line.
The right side of the line isn’t as proven as the left, but it’s much better than last season. McNeil made nine starts in 2015, including eight straight. Mahoni, the former junior college transfer, played in all 13 games last season with four starts. The right side of the line is generally known for being good run blockers and that’s exactly what McNeil and Mahoni are. McNeil is a similar size of the left side, 6-foot-6 and 313 lbs, but has better feet. Mahoni, 6-foot-3 and 300 lbs, is a strong and aggressive run blocker.
Waiting for a chance
Senior Khalil Hunter is one of multiple junior college transfers on U of L’s offensive line. Hunter played in two games last season after being named an All-American at Eastern Arizona Junior College before coming to Louisville. Hunter is solid back-up who is able to step in if needed.
Two players ready to make a name for themselves are Chandler Jones and Danny Burns. Both players were highly sought after during their high school days. Burns was one of the first recruits Petrino’s staff went after upon arriving to Louisville and was recruited by Klenakis. The redshirt sophomore is a big mauler at 6-foot-6 and 305 lbs.
Jones, Burns and Toriano Roundtree are three players that can pass the eye-test, but whether they can produce is to be determined. Jones weighs in at 305 lbs and stands 6-foot-4. Roundtree comes from Gainesville, Florida and is 6-foot-7 and 305 lbs.
U of L has a fair share of players from Louisville on their offensive line. Four of their 14 linemen are from Louisville and five are from Kentucky, more than any other state. Nathan Scheler and Tyler Haycraft are both sophomores from Saint Xavier High School. Chaz Ray comes from Fern Creek and Thomas Nauert is from Desales High School.
Photo by Wade Morgan / The Louisville Cardinal