Cardinals' O-line returns experience and depth
None of Louisville's offensive linemen saw this coming last fall, when underclassman were pressed into service and the Cardinals shifted personnel trying to find rhythm and chemistry.
Ragged as it looked throughout the season, the unit ultimately came together and the trust was evident as the Cardinals won a share of the Big East Conference title and reached the Belk Bowl. Some polishing remains, but No. 25 Louisville begins the season on Sept. 2 against Kentucky with four of five starters back, including the entire left side.
That should help the Cardinals and sophomore quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who completed 64.5% of his passes for 2,129 yards and 14 touchdowns last season, but also had 12 interceptions and was often under fire.
''We didn't do a good job of protecting Teddy,'' Cardinals offensive line coach Dave Borbely said. ''But that's an area where we made strides and we're better at it now.''
Anchoring this unit is senior center Mario Benavides, a four-year starter. To his left are sophomores John Miller and Jamon Brown, a converted defensive tackle, while sophomore Jake Smith and senior Alex Kemper return on the right side.
They take pride in doing many things well in the Cardinals' pro-style offense, be it run or pass blocking or executing a zone or power scheme. What's most obvious and perhaps more encouraging is that they have a lot more to learn about the system and each other.
Then again, there was a lot of room for improvement. Already faced with having to replace four starters, Borbely estimates that he ran about 10 players through the lineup last season, a quest that built experience and hopefully pays off this year with depth.
From Benavides' view, the mix got a bit ugly.
''It's like night and day,'' said Benavides, recovered from left shoulder surgery this spring. ''There were a lot of new faces before and it takes a while to get that cohesion. Now, we know each other and trust each other. Mainly, we just had to get used to each other.''
Bridgewater thrived nonetheless after taking over for injured Will Stein, but the line is intent on giving him time and protection. The focus though is establishing ball control and the run, where juniors Dominique Brown, Jeremy Wright and Senorise Perry are competing for the running back job.
No matter who gets the call, the linemen are eager to see how far they've come from a season of growing pains.
''This time last year, it didn't seem like it would happen quickly,'' said Smith, who started all 13 games. ''We made a lot of mistakes, and I certainly made a lot of mistakes. But that was the only way to learn, and we've been trying to correct those mistakes.''
Smith added that most of the growth has come in play action, where the unit has a better grasp of how to execute. Having competition at running back has helped, he said.
Benavides also said they're better at their blocking schemes after taking extra time to review video of what they were doing. More than anything, the camera revealed mental errors that they've spent working on through repetitions aside from Borbely's instruction.
What's important is that they improved from 2-4 start into a conference co-champion, bowl team and now a ranked team that knows there's no room for error. And to hear them tell it, no tolerance either.
''You can handle the ranking two ways,'' Smith said. ''You can act like it's not there and do what you do as always, or you can embrace it. We're not prima donnas, but it's just a number. But we'd like to work up to a higher rank and this is a good starting point. We're very focused.''