In what has become an annual early August tradition, concern over Louisville's offensive line is spreading through Planet Red faster than the Avian Flu spread through the West Coast in 2005 (just because the media didn't report it doesn't mean it didn't happen, strengthen your minds people). Though it was destined to happen at some point, it appears that the '07 version of the outbreak was energized by last week's announcements that Marcel Benson would be out for the season and that Jeremy Baker had been thrown off the team.
The lineage of Cardinal fans' offseason obsession with the O-line can be traced back to one specific day: Sept. 1, 2002. Anticipating what was supposed to be the commencement of the greatest season in Louisville history, Cardinal fans instead watched in horror as the home team fell to its bitter rival, and went back to their cars trying to erase the image of their star quarterback hobbling off the field looking like he'd just gone 12 rounds with Ivan Drago.
The 2002 season has been referenced consistently every summer (present included) since.
Many believe that the yearly epidemic is a product of overcompensation by Cardinal fans still harboring the embarrassment of failing to notice the glaring weaknesses on the offensive line and buying into the '02 hype.
While depth is certainly an issue that has warrants a certain level of concern, the truth is that as long as its five current starters remain healthy, U of L will be the owner of one of the top two offensive lines in the Big East. And don't just take it from me, take it from The Godfather himself, who ranks the Cardinal unit as the second best in the conference and the 14th best in the country.
All talk surrounding the strength of the 2007 O-line must begin and end with junior Eric Wood, the center par excellence in the Big East who just may be able to lay claim to the same distinction nationally by the end of the season. He has started all 25 games of his first two seasons, and snapped the ball during every meaningful play of Louisville's 21-4 run in that span. Brohm, Urrutia, Douglas and Jackson will snatch the headlines, but #77 is the guy the Cardinals can most ill afford to lose.
Next the focus shifts to left tackle, a position commonly referred to as one of the three most important on a football team. Good news for U of L since they have a preseason First-Team All-American manning the spot.
George Bussey wasn't even considered a starter this time last season, but he started all 13 games a year ago (11 at LT, and a pair at LG) and did not yield a sack on his way to picking up First-Team All-Big East honors. He was one of the main reasons the Cards averaged over 180 yards per game on the ground WITHOUT Michael Bush, and rightly enters the '07 season regarded as one of the best offensive lineman in the country.
Bussey's entrenched Veep on the left side is Danny Barlowe, an experienced senior who started all but two games at the position a season ago. Regarded as one of the hardest workers on the team, Barlowe has seen steady action at the guard position in each of his three seasons in a Cardinal uniform.
No issues on the left side or in the middle, so we pay a visit to Ted Stevens' favorite side of the line where we find Breno Giacomini holding down the tackle position. The agile 6-7, 300-pounder spent the first half of the season at left tackle where he started the Kansas State and Middle Tennessee State games, and then spent the latter half at tight end where he was utilized mostly as a key blocker in short-yardage situations.
Giacomini's versatility is evident in the fact that he's seen action in all 37 games of his three-year career despite shifting between two different positions with distinctly different responsibilities. He dedicated the offseason to making sure he stuck on the O-line in his senior season, and emerged as one of the offense's vocal leaders during the spring.
Breno's only going to play one position in 2007.
Which leads us to the right guard position, a spot brought up in the musings of all concerned Cardinal fans. While the loss of a projected senior starter certainly appears like cause for hysteria, a closer look reveals that Marcel Benson's misfortune is more of a jab at the O-line's depth than it is a crowning blow to the starting unit's overall strength.
It's important to note that the right guard position was the only one on the offensive line in which a definite starter was not named in the Spring Prospectus. Benson and current starter Mike Donoghue were listed as equal on the depth chart and many, including myself, stated that Donoghue had made a big push for the starting job before Benson went down with an irregular heartbeat on the last day of spring practice. Sure Donoghue is green, but he's started just as many games and been in the system for just as many years as Benson has (both redshirted, and Marcel spent two seasons at a junior college), and he also showed just how far he was willing to go for a starting spot by shedding 15 pounds after the end of spring practice so that he could enter fall camp more mobile.
While Donoghue absolutely possesses the talent to be the fifth piece to one of the Big East's best O-lines, if he falters at any point it isn't like there aren't any worthy candidates who will gladly take his place.
Like Donoghue, redshirt freshman Jeff Adams is inexperienced, but offensive line coach Brent Myers raves about the 6-8, 300-pounder's raw potential. If he can make the necessary strides between now and early September then he could work his way into the starting lineup if things don't work out with Donoghue.
Then there's 6-4, 295-pound JuCo transfer Abdul Kuyateh, a player who told me on the phone the day after he signed that he planned on coming in and starting right away. His words may prove to be prophetic as Rocco "You Wish You Had My Name" Gasparro reports that Kuyateh is already pushing Donoghue and appears to be "the real deal."
And don't sleep on young guys like Mark Wetterer or Greg Tomczyk who, if nothing else, have the size to at least partially make up for their lack of experience.
A lot of the talk I'm hearing regarding this year's hogs bears a strong resemblance to much of what was being said this time a year ago, a year in which ultimately (I think we all can agree) the offensive line performed very admirably. But when you match the two units at this same point against one another, it becomes clear that this sort of talk was far more warranted in the summer of 2006.
Eric Wood was a solid returnee at center, but he was still just a sophomore. The then largely inexperienced duo of Danny Barlowe and former walk-on George Bussey were doing battle over the right guard position, while the equally inexperienced tandem of Marcel Benson and Breno Giacomini were tussling next door. Kurt Quarterman was a highly experienced and talented starting senior left tackle, but his cohort on the right side, Renardo Foster, was surrounded with questions after missing all but two games in 2005 because of a back injury and most of 2004 with an ACL injury.
And what about that now infamous 2002 Cardinal offensive line that many-a-unit has been unfairly compared to since?
The only link between the '02 and '07 protectors of star quarterbacks is that they're all bigger than I am and don't own the highest all-time batting average at Slugger Field (I do). Junior center Dan Koons was the only starter returning to a unit that was looking to replace Aaron Dardzinski, Michael Bowers and Rob Eble. That fateful first day of September, John L. Smith sent a pair of freshman (Jason Spitz and Travis Leffew) and a pair of inexperienced juniors (Jason Hilliard and Jason Weathers) to aid Koons in his pursuit to keep Dave Ragone off his back.
It didn't go well.
The writing was on the wall; we all either ignored it or failed to recognize it through the atypical haze of unparalleled preseason hype.
Should something unexpected rear its ugly head yet again somewhere down the road then inexperience beyond the first tier of offensive linemen may ultimately prove to be a major cause for concern, but as of right now the comparisons to 2002 are just silly. Of course we're always just a George Bussey or Eric Wood awkward step away from all the Dave Ragone bobbleheads of the world crying real tears.