April 9, 2014
LOUISVILLE, Ky.- During Bobby Petrino's first tenure at the University of Louisville, he was known to develop solid offensive lines. In his first four seasons with the Cardinals, the football head coach sent six different players to the NFL.
After 13 practices, the Cardinals are starting to pick up the system, but it has been hard, especially from an offensive line standpoint.
"The biggest difference is all the techniques," senior Jamon Brown said. "It's a different system. We did a lot of different techniques last season and to have coach Klenakis come in and be the complete opposite is a difficult thing."
This time around, Petrino is fortunate to have NFL caliber along the offensive front, as four starters return on the offensive line in seniors Jake Smith, Jamon Brown, John Miller, and Ryan Mack. Abraham Garcia, who is sitting out this spring, also has started for the Cardinals.
While the Cardinals have plenty of experience and talent returning on the offensive line, they are trying to learn an entirely new offensive system.
"Slowly, but surely," Brown said when he was asked if he was picking up the offense. "I feel like, offensively, we are putting the pieces together. It's not easy taking on a new system, and trying to learn it as fast as coach Petrino and the other offensive coaches want us to learn it. I think we are doing a good job and are starting to come together as an offense."
Injuries have slowed the progress of the offensive line this spring as Mack and Garcia are sitting out, so Petrino and offensive line coach Chris Klenakis are moving different pieces around.
"We're making strides," Klenakis said. "Saturday, I thought we took a step forward; there's no doubt about it. We were playing faster and playing with more energy. That was the thing I was most happy about was the energy."
Smith, who has started 38 games over the last three seasons, likes how the unit has come together after the first three weeks of spring.
"We're definitely getting better," said Smith. "The grasp of the offense is getting a lot better, but we still have to play harder, technique, especially technique, assignments, everything has to be a lot crisper. We have to play with effort and energy and compete and be physical everyday."
Smith started his career at guard and played the first two seasons there, but the Cardinals had a major need at center last season, so the native of Jacksonville, Ala., made the switch. Although he might be moving back to guard, Smith believes he will be comfortable either way.
"Guard is not that much different than center," Smith says. "The steps are the same and you're going against the same guys. You're going to go against a 300-pound guy almost every time. I think we've got a good little group going right now. But versatility, I think we have a lot of versatile guys who can play both sides. That definitely helps."
Smith's move is a possibility because of the development of walk-on Tobijah Hughley from Lexington, Ky. Not considered a front runner before spring practice, Hughley, along with Smith, have helped solidify Louisville's offensive front this spring.
"Jake has the versatility to play both guard and center and Tobijah was having good practices," Klenakis said. "It gave us a chance to mesh well and develop some chemistry and cohesiveness within the front."
Klenakis, who has tutored many great linemen, likes Hughley's toughness and competitiveness.
"The thing he brings is he's a competitor," Klenakis said. "He's a very competitive young man. He plays with a lot of effort and takes pride in doing his job. That's what makes a good center. A center has to be an overachieving guy who is smart and is going to play hard."
Hughley knew with the new coaching staff coming in and a new offensive line coach that he had an opportunity to compete for a position.
"When coach Petrino came in, he said every job was open," Hughley said. "As soon as that happened, I knew I had to make my move. I've played center since little league. Me stepping in ... is what I've wanted."
With just one practice remaining, Klenakis says there's still a lot of work to do to improve the unit's depth. Skylar Lacy, Chandler Bridges, and Cameron Fraser all redshirted last season and have been working with the second group, along with Joe Manley.
"The young guys have to continue to get better," Klenakis said. "We still have to make a lot of progress with our younger guys. I think they've got to learn tempo and how we go about things. I thought they ran the ball better Saturday than they had all of spring ball, especially in the first two drives. They were really effective running the football. They ran the football down there and scored on big runs."
With four starters back, the Cardinals will need this unit to continue to jell and improve if they are going to compete in the ACC this season. The Cardinals will get to showcase their abilities during Friday night's Red-White Game at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium.