For the next ten days I'll countdown the 10 important things for the match-up between UofL and UK on September 2nd. Today I'll take a look at both team's offensive lines. The cliche that the game is won in the trenches is one of the few that is a very true statement.
Going into last year's game the offensive line was arguably the biggest question mark on the entire team. Coming off a loss to FIU in which they gave up six sacks and twelve overall negative plays, it was hard to imagine that they would fare much better against an SEC defense. Louisville's line came together to help the offense put up 181 yards rushing as well as only allowing one negative play outside of the four sacks allowed. False starts were a huge issue when the offense was trying to sustain drives. We should see a major drop off in procedure penalties this year.
A few injuries forced guys like Kamron Joyner and Jamon Brown into action at different spots along the offensive line. Brown getting that experience will help him as he takes over at right tackle for the departed Ryan Kessling. Brown is the lone newcomer to the line but he might be the most talented also. His athleticism has drawn rave reviews. The fact that he was a defensive tackle through the first quarter of the season before playing both guard and tackle, show that he deserves the praise. If I were Rick Minter I would have Alvin Dupree putting pressure on Brown from the first play of the game until he proves he can handle it. Dupree is taking over for Ridge Wilson at UK's hybrid linebacker/defensive end position. He played well at the end of last season and could cause problems this year.
The four returning starters for Louisville played together through the core of last season. Mario Benavides missed the first three games and John Miller missed a little time as well. With the young guys staying healthy through the spring and throughout fall camp, the offensive line if primed to be a strength instead of a weakness this year. Alex Kupper, John Miller, Mario, Jake Smith, and Jamon Brown have all spent the offseason working together without having to share reps. Mario being out and John Miller having only fall camp to get acclimated showed last year and I'm excited to see how these guys do with this much time to gel. The play of the line will be the biggest factor in the offense improving. The running game doesn't work without holes and the passing game doesn't work without time.
How do I put this gently. UK's offensive line was atrocious against us last year. They allowed six sacks and fourteen negative plays and looked really bad doing so. The line returned three starters and highly recruited right tackle Darrian Miller last year. Center Matt Smith missed the game and I honestly believe that he was missed greatly. The offensive line quickly went from being a veteran group to five guys that looked like they had never played together. Missed assignments and confusion are not something you expect from an experienced line but that was what we saw throughout the game last year.
The question that you have to ask yourself as a UK fan is: If last year's line was so bad, how can their backups be better? Well, Zach West was one of the most sought after lineman in the country two years ago. He sat behind Stuart Hines who had twenty-four starts under his belt heading into last season, so it's understandable that he didn't play. West will line up at left guard next to Miller this year. This could either be a big positive for UK, or the biggest weakness on the line. I tend to think that two guys this highly regarded will be fine. All-SEC performer Larry Warford fills out the interior of the line very well. Roy Philon and the now departed Randy Salmon had an absolute field day last year. I'm sure that Warford, a Kentucky Native, will not want to have his last Governor's Cup to end up being another highlight video for our defensive line.
Kevin Mitchell is rumored to be the choice at right tackle this year. He only has one career start and is moving from guard to tackle this year. He's tall but comes in well under three hundred pounds. Pretty much the same measurements that Miller came into the game with last year. B.J. Butler abused Miller throughout the entire game and I have to wonder if we see the same thing this year. Butler, George Durant, and Deiontrez Mount have all practiced at the hybrid linebacker/defensive end spot that gave Miller fits last year. It will be interesting to see if Mitchell fares better.
Louisville fans no all to well how important it is to have a veteran center to anchor the line. Mario Benavides and Matt Smith are probably the two best that we will see this entire season. Smith was missed last year and he will be even more important this year with the youth that they around him. I'm a firm believer that talent beats experience every time and I expect the UK offensive line to be much improved this year.