LOUISVILLE, Ky. — When offensive guard Khalil Hunter thinks of last season's Louisville line, the memories grow ugly. "It was mistakes on mistakes," Hunter said.
No game encapsulated the growing pains of the Cardinals better than a 20–17 loss to Clemson on a Thursday night in mid-September. Yes, the same Clemson that won the ACC. Yes, the same Clemson that went blow for blow with Alabama in the national title game until the Crimson Tide finally broke serve with a fourth-quarter onside kick. Louisville had a chance to beat the Tigers and prove how far the program had come. Two great chances, actually. Both were undone by poor pass blocking on a night when the Cardinals would give up five sacks and allow Clemson rushers to repeatedly batter their quarterbacks.
Saturday in Clemson, the Cardinals offensive line has a chance to prove how much has changed in a year and two weeks. In the same week of the season that the Tigers shredded Louisville's line last season, this year's model stoned Florida State rushers en route to a 63–20 win. If the Cardinals can block the Tigers—the best group of defensive linemen they'll see this season—they can take a prohibitive lead in the race for the ACC Atlantic Division title and become a favorite to make the College Football Playoff. Given what happened last year, that's a huge if. But the Cardinals insist there is little resemblance between last year's line and this one.
Hunter, an Orlando native who had just transferred from Eastern Arizona Community College, didn't even play in the game. Offensive tackle Geron Christian and center Tobijah Hughley are the only current Louisville starting linemen who started that game, though current starting tackle Lukayus McNeil also played. All probably wish every copy of that game was burned.
Down three late in the fourth quarter, Louisville's offensive line slid the protection right, leaving tight end Mickey Crum alone to block Clemson defensive end Shaq Lawson. The result was what one would expect from a tight end trying to pass block against an All-America end. Within seconds, Lawson draped himself over quarterback Kyle Bolin—Lamar Jackson, then a true freshman, was only playing in certain situations—whose pass sailed hopelessly high and then dropped into the hands of Clemson safety Jayron Kearse.
The Cardinals had already advanced into field goal range, but a poor pre-snap diagnosis had gotten the quarterback smacked and the ball picked.
The Cardinals would get another chance. Clemson's Cordrea Tankersley had been called for defensive holding. Louisville would have first-and-10 at the Clemson 23. On that first down play, Clemson rushed four. Three of those rushers beat their blockers—Christian Wilkins beat two Cardinals by himself—and converged on Bolin for a four-yard loss. Louisville would eventually miss a field goal. What might have been a game-winning touchdown drive spiraled out of control because of a bad down-and-distance thanks to a sack.
Still, it got worse. The Cardinals got the ball back one more time with 1:12 remaining and no timeouts. Bolin hit Crum for a 23-yard gain to the Clemson 38-yard line. On first down, Hughely snapped the ball before Bolin called for it. Bolin picked up the ball and heaved it over a receiver's head and out of bounds to avert disaster. On second down, Clemson rushed only three. Kevin Dodd beat McNeil and sacked Bolin for a loss of three. From the 41, a field goal attempt was futile. With no timeouts, the Cardinals had time only for a Hail Mary. It was intercepted.
John Sommers/Icon Sportswire
The Louisville line worked an entire off-season to ensure these mistakes—the mental ones and the physical ones—don't happen nearly as often. While it helps that Jackson has developed into one of the nation's best running and throwing threats, he wouldn't be nearly as electric if the line hadn't improved dramatically. The first time Louisville threw deep against Florida State, the Seminoles rushed five. The Cardinals slid the protection to the left. Florida State star defensive end DeMarcus Walker, the player being read by Jackson on previous read option plays, froze when Jackson faked a handoff to Jeremy Smith and got blocked by tight end Cole Hikutini. After the play fake, Smith chipped blitzing cornerback Tarvarus McFadden. Jackson missed a wide open Jaylen Smith for what would have been Louisville's first touchdown, but the Cardinals had set the tone.
Florida State would sack Jackson only once. When Louisville ran—especially behind McNeil or when Hunter pulled—the Cardinals caved in the Seminoles' front seven. A line that had given up five sacks and left Jackson running for his life a year earlier in Tallahassee made it look easy against a front that had terrorized Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly, the SEC's best signal-caller, 12 days earlier.
Jackson believes the talent was always there on Louisville's line. Like Jackson, the players who block for him had to master their positions. "They've been physical, but everybody had to know what we were doing," Jackson said. "That was our biggest thing last year—you had to know what you were doing. This year we actually know, and it shows."
Louisville coach Bobby Petrino noticed the same thing when he reviewed the Florida State win. "That's what was fun watching the other day was how physical they played, how hard they played, how they communicated," Petrino said. "You know we still had some mistakes. We still had some errors, but they were mistakes because of things, new looks that we saw or a call that we made. There were zero effort errors."
The 6' 4", 304-pound Hunter believes the closeness of this particular group contributes to the crisp communication. The Cardinals bond the way offensive linemen usually do—at places that have a lineman's favorite phrase on the sign: All You Can Eat. "Chinese. Breakfast buffets. Pizza," Hunter said. "We don't discriminate." Hunter could only laugh as he considered what a normal-sized person must think when seeing so many 300-pounders eyeballing the buffet. "Sometimes, I'll walk in first," Hunter said. "They'll be like 'Oh, that's a big guy.' But then Lukayus (6' 6", 316) and Toriano [Roundtree] (6'6", 300) and those boys come in? They'll be like, 'Man, those boys are huge.'"
But Clemson's defensive linemen are huge, too. And fast. Ends Dodd and Lawson are off to the NFL, but Wilkins and tackle Carlos Watkins are back. They've added a new friend in 6' 5", 340-pound freshman Dexter Lawrence, who immediately cracked the rotation and already has 3.5 tackles for loss and seven quarterback pressures on the season. Lawrence's emergence allowed Clemson coaches to shift Wilkins to end, giving the Tigers freakish size and speed on the outside and the inside.
"They have a lot of movement, so we're going to have to block movement with guys that are very big and physical," Petrino told reporters Monday. "[This will] probably be the biggest defensive line that we've played this year. They play with bigger defensive ends than what we've been seeing. A lot of guys went to more speed and quickness, and they went to more size and set the edge."
The problem is Clemson has just as much speed on its line as anyone else. It just so happens those players are much larger. The group will be the ultimate test for Louisville's improved offensive line. And if the Cardinals' line passes—thereby allowing Jackson to pass—there will be no limit on what Louisville can achieve this season.