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2015 Position Previews: Offensive Line

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I contemplated just using a ouija board to write the preview of the offensive line because, I mean, we're guessing anyway. Might as well have some fun with it. I'm halfway joking of course, but only halfway. The perfect recipe for making it nigh unto impossible to write a position preview: have three players graduate and head on to the NFL, sign multiple junior college players who you admit you'll likely count on right away and only have one of them participate in spring football, have one starter for a portion of the season transfer, praise both true freshman offensive linemen that are already on campus, never mention the second returning starter in any of your public statement about the offensive line, and experiment with multiple offensive line combinations when we did get to see the team play.

The Cast

Name Class Ht Wt Position(s) Games
Khalil Hunter (JC) JR 6'4 291 G/T -
Kevin Austin (JC) SO 6'2 286 C/G -
Kiola Mahoni (JC) JR 6'3 297 C/G -
Tobijah Hughley SR 6'3 289 C 12
T.C. Klusman JR 6'3 275 C 2
Danny Burns RS FR 6'6 303 G/T -
Lukayus McNeil RS FR 6'6 313 G/T -
Pedro Sibiea JR 6'3 300 C/G 2
Skylar Lacy SO 6'6 306 C/G 2
Kelby Johnson SR 6'7 292 T 8
Aaron Epps SR 6'7 288 T 11
Kenny Thomas FR 6'6 345 G/T -
Geron Christian FR 6'6 310 G/T -
Chandler Jones FR 6'4 300 G/T -

Breaking Down the Battle

The other day I sat and started just scribbling possible offensive line combinations. Remembering that Louisville mostly flips offensive linemen strong and weak side (teams mostly do this to try and get defenses to key on one side and so they only have to emphasize backside technique to the "weak" side linemen). Here's what I came up:

WT Aaron Epps Aaron Epps Aaron Epps Aaron Epps Aaron Epps Aaron Epps Aaron Epps Aaron Epps
WG Kiola Mahoni Pedro Sibiea Kiola Mahoni Pedro Sibiea Kiola Mahoni Kenny Thomas Geron Christian Geron Christian
C Tobijah Hughley Kevin Austin Pedro Sibiea Kiola Mahoni Kevin Austin Kiola Mahoni Kiola Mahoni Kevin Austin
SG Khalil Hunter Khalil Hunter Khalil Hunter Khalil Hunter Khalil Hunter Khalil Hunter Kenny Thomas Kenny Thomas
ST Kelby Johnson Kelby Johnson Kenny Thomas Kelby Johnson Kenny Thomas Kelby Johnson Khalil Hunter Khalil Hunter

Let me explain my logic above and then you can decide for yourself if it's sound:

  • Based on Bobby Petrino's comments at ACC Football Kickoff, James Burgess saying at ACC Kickoff that he is an offensive lineman that sticks out to him as having had a great spring and summer, and the way he played when taking over the starting role, I can't see anyone but Aaron Epps playing the weak tackle spot this season. And I can't see Epps playing any other position.
  • I can't see how Tobijah Hughley is the center in 2015. As I mentioned above, it can't be a coincidence that even though Tobijah Hughley started 12 games last year, Louisville signed three interior junior college offensive linemen and Petrino never seems to mention him as a settled returning piece of the offensive line, and others were given some reps with the first team in the spring. Hughley struggled all year, here's a .gif that captures the essence of his struggles in a single play.

It's a beautiful playact and from this still shot you can see that it is blocked perfectly by everyone...except Hughley.

HughleyUnblock

Because he gets beaten by the nose tackle, Brown can't hit the draw hole running full speed and every defender on the second level has a chance to react and stop him before he scores. This sort of play happened repeatedly in 2015.

  • All of the praise for Geron Christian and Kenny Thomas, particularly how college ready they seem physically, means they'll have legitimate chances to play early even if they don't start from week one.
  • Petrino has also praised the difference in mindset and improvement physically of Pedro Sibiea and Kelby Johnson (who I think everyone thought was a pretty big disappointment last year).
All of those assumptions combine to make me think the offensive line in Atlanta when Louisville takes the field against Auburn will be Aaron Epps at weak tackle, Kiola Mahoni at weak Guard, Pedro Sibiea at center, Khalil Hunter at strong guard, and Kelby Johnson at strong tackle.

Breakout Potential

Redshirt freshman Lukayus McNeil and freshmen Thomas and Christian all have a chance to have immediate impacts on the line. We saw last year that Petrino and Chris Klenakis are not afraid to mix and match linemen if one is struggling. Combine that with how often they went with six offensive linemen (instead of an additional tight end) and you can make a case for any of these three to get on the field quite a bit as freshmen this year and perhaps snag a spot in the lineup for the future.

Better or Worse than Last Year

Early on, this unit is not nearly as good as last year. You don't lose two draft picks and a third in an NFL camp without taking steps back. Still, the center and weak tackle positions so often hurt the line last year, that the overall play (especially on zone blocking plays where the center is supposed to slide up after a double team) and pass protection could actually be better right away. Asking them to run block as well as the strong side did when it was John Miller and Jamon Brown is probably asking too much right away.