One position on the U of L football roster fans would love to see major improvement from is the offensive line. It is not necessarily due to poor performance last year, but because the success of an offense relies heavily on the performance of the offensive line. The performance of this group could be the difference between 8 wins and 12 wins. Last season, U of L fans saw two separate groups of offensive linemen last year. The first group had issues, and we saw far too much of Teddy Bridgewater having to run for his life or Dominique Brown and Victor Anderson having no holes to run through. Then, as the season progressed, we saw less and less of this type of play. The line got better each game and played a huge role in an upset win over West Virginia. The improvement of this group is due in large part to offensive line coach Dave Borbely, a man who does not get enough credit. The line was young, inexperienced, and he did an outstanding job coaching them up to be a quality line. This season, Borbely and his offensive line unit hope to capitalize on last season’s improvement and become the best line in the Big East.
Last year’s rough start was due mostly to the fact that the group was just inexperienced and young. The only returning starter was center Mario Benavides, who missed the first part of the season due to injury. The group had lost starters Byron Stingily, Mark Wetterer, Conrad Thomas, and Gret Tomczyk, as well as serviceable backups/substitutes Josh Byrom and Jeff Adams. Borbely certainly had his work cut out for him, and what he accomplished with this group is very commendable. This year’s group will not be able to use “inexperienced” as an excuse for poor play, as they are returning four starters from last year’s unit and have reportedly had a great offseason. The line will likely have a starting rotation of Alex Kupper (LT), John Miller (LG), Mario Benavides (C), Jake Smith (RG), and Jamon Brown (RT, who will be replacing the only departing starter, Ryan Kessling). This is still a young group with two starters being true sophomores (Benavides and Kupper are seniors, Smith a redshirt sophomore), but all have significant game experience under their belts. The key thing now is to make sure the group stays healthy.
The undisputed most valuable member of the offensive line corps is Mario Benavides. He is the most experiences of the group and has been named to the Rimington Trophy watch list. The Rimington Trophy is awarded every year to the best center in the nation, so it is fair to say there is a lot expected out of Benavides. He is an outstanding player and leader, though, and is more than ready to live up to the hype. He will likely be wearing an NFL uniform in the fall of 2013, but the one red flag on him is durability. He missed the first part of last season with an injury and missed this entire spring with an injury as well. He should be good to go for the season at 100%, but as the most valuable member of the offensive line, it is imperative for him to stay healthy for both the success of this team as well as his long term future.
The other veteran on the line is Louisville native Alex Kupper out of Trinity High School. Kupper is the type of player people just want to see succeed. As a former walk-on who earned his way to a scholarship, he is easily one of the most likable players on the team. He is also a great leader and can play any of the offensive line positions, as he showed last year when he filled in at center when Benavides was out. He has worked his tail off to become a quality offensive tackle and aside from Benavides, is the most valuable member of the offensive line. He too, however, will need to stay healthy. In a heart-stopping moment early on in the Red-White game, Kupper went down with what appeared to be a severe knee injury. A later MRI showed it to be an MCL sprain that was not all that serious, but any injury to the knee is rough. He should be ready to go come September, but he will need to take special care of that knee.
The projected starter opposite of Kupper is another local kid, Jamon Brown out of Fern Creek High School. At 6-6, 340 lbs according to the 2012 media guide, the young man is a mammoth. He came to Louisville as a defensive tackle prospect weighing 305 lbs, but was moved to offense last season. While we all hope that the weight gain was planned, it is also noteworthy that this kid is a monster in the weight room as well. As a recruit, he could bench 300 lbs and maxed out at 525 lbs on the squat rack. He will also have the most to prove on the line this year, as he is the only projected starter who was not a regular starter last season (although he did see the field a bit). He is by far the largest member of the offensive line, and if he is able to handle his weight, he will make Teddy Bridgewater a very happy man.
On each side of Benavides, the interior of the offensive line will be manned by redshirt sophomore Jake Smith and true sophomore John Miller. Smith had an outstanding debut as a starter last year and hopes to ride that momentum into this season. He made his share of mistakes, just as any young player would, but as the season progressed, he became one of the more valuable and durable members of the offensive line, having started all 13 games last season. His season was deemed worthy enough to be elected a Football Writers Association of America freshman All-American, the first U of L freshman to hold such an honor.
Miller is the baby of the group. Due to U of L’s lack of depth last season, he was thrown into the fire early, becoming one of only five true freshmen in the nation to start on the offensive line. As a freshman, he made his share of freshman mistakes, but due to his size and talent for the position, he was still able to hold his own against more experienced competition. He started 10 games last season, missing three due to an ankle injury. He also suffered a leg injury during the spring game, so just as it is with the rest of the unit, he needs to be healthy. He arguably has the most potential of any returning offensive linemen, but needs to stay healthy and consistent, and he will be an effective member of the front five.
The Cards also have quality backups who are ready to step in, including veterans Chris Acosta and Kamran Joyer. Through excellent recruiting, the staff has brought in quality young talent as well to ensure the quality of future the offensive line. Those players include redshirt freshmen Mike Romano, Chase Petersen, and Ryan Mack, along with true freshmen TC Klusman, Joe Manley, Sid Anvoots, and Abraham “Nacho” Garcia. Garcia is one to really keep an eye out for. Listed as a 4-star recruit by ESPN.com, his ESPN profile describes him as a physically strong player who excels in run blocking and has nice feetwork. He is another mammoth, as his U of L profile lists him at 352 lbs, he needs to make sure his weight does not become an issue. If there is one freshman that should make the starters stay on their toes, though, it is Garcia.
Overall, this is a group that has improved greatly from where it was this time last season, and from all reports, has the coaching staff confident in their abilities. With as talented as the Cards are at the offensive skill positions, if the line does what it is expected to do this season, we may be in for the most explosive offense the fans have seen since the Petrino days.