Last season, the offensive line was the glowing, neon red, 10,000 pound elephant in the room anytime the offensive struggles were mentioned. It's cliche to say that the game is won in the trenches but it is completely factual. If your line can't stay away from penalties it kills drives. If they can't open holes for running backs it makes the offensive one dimensional. If they can't protect the quarterback it shrinks the playbook as well as causes turnovers. More than anything, it kills the offense's rhythm and leads to 3-and-outs. This group has young guys that now have experience and it could easily be the reason for an offensive explosion this year.
Geron Christian was the bright spot for Louisville's line last year as he steadily improved as the season went on. Christian impressed me most by slowing down Myles Garrett in the bowl game. Garrett is the type of talent that you don't completely stop, but the offensive strategy was to attack Garrett and make him make plays. Garrett was held up just enough by Christian for Lamar Jackson to run wild. Christian should be in even better shape and more experienced this year and could develop into a Jamon Brown type of player in the future.
Lukayus McNeil has been moved to tackle this year and I think he will be a good fit there. McNeil was an undersized lineman before coming to UofL so he knows how to play with his athleticism and hands. He's grown into a guy that can handle larger defensive linemen but I think he will get back to his roots easily. One thing that I think Louisville will miss out on his his interior blocking. McNeil is a trash-talking mauler type of guy and that works well as a guard or center. At tackle he will be asked to be more of a finesse player and I'm not sure his temper will be utilized as well.
The two guard spots will be manned by Kenny Thomas and Khalil Hunter (who has surprisingly worked his way into a starting position from not playing at all). Thomas got some playing time last year including a few starts before being injured. The staff obviously thinks highly of him and I think it will be good to see at least four spots on the line being settled well before the season starts. If Hunter can hold of Kiola Mahoni and keep some continuity for the full season, we could really see the improvement that I mentioned before. It is still a major plus that UofL has depth at both guard spots with Mahoni having plenty of experience.
The center position will be the most experienced spot again this year with Tobijah Hughley returning for his senior year. The unfortunate thing is that it will also be the weak point of the line for the third straight year. I'm a huge fan of success stories and local(ish) kids doing well but Hughley isn't the caliber player that Louisville needs in this spot and that was on full display last year. Hughley was routinely flagged for false starts, which shouldn't ever happen to a center. He was beaten badly by larger and faster defensive tackles. He was blown off the ball plenty of times because he got out of his stance too slowly. He was just overwhelmed in general. He wasn't awful and that's not at all what I'm trying to say. But he wasn't at the level that this team needs. At some point this staff should have been able to bring in a more talented player and they haven't. Hughley could take that leap forward this year and all of this is moot, but it's been two years and we haven't seen it yet.
The only real question marks around this line are if the young guys can take a big leap forward and if there is any depth at tackle and center. If they can answer those questions this could be the key to a win over a team like Clemson or FSU that have really good defensive lines. It can also be the key to a more balanced offense with an improved running game.
AROUND THE ACC
There aren't a large amount of outstanding offensive linemen in the ACC but Mitch Hyatt of Clemson, and Roderick Johnson of FSU are outstanding tackles that will both be potential All-American candidates. Jay Guillermo of Clemson might be the best center in college football and Dorian Johnson of Pitt is an outstanding guard. Tyrone Crowder of Clemson is also a really good offensive guard who should have another great year for the Tigers.
Unless you're a new reader, you know that I won't pretend to be able to break down offensive linemen like some kind of expert. It's a tough position to evaluate and it's really hard to analyze. There are a lot of second-tier guys that will help some of the top offenses do really well this year, but there aren't a lot of high level recruits that are expected to contribute this year. In all honesty, I really do think the majority of UofL's offensive line has the potential to be the "surprise guy" to step up and get some pub this year.