That's the biggest question facing Charlie Strong's offense this spring.
Louisville was inconsistent up front last season, mostly due to the fact that offensive line coach Dave Borbely was forced to play true freshmen John Miller and Jamon Brown, plus redshirt freshman Jake Smith. All three started multiple games, gaining valuable experience that should pay positive dividends this season.
In seven wins last season, Louisville averaged 147 yards rushing. In six losses, the Cardinals gained less than 86 yards on the ground. Clearly, one of the keys this spring is to make Louisville's run blocking a consistent strength.
Borbely's other big job is shoring up Louisville's pass protection. The Cardinals allowed 36 sacks during the regular season, twice as many as they had the prior season. Keeping sophomore quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who had to run for his life in UofL's loss to N.C. State in the Belk Bowl, on his feet could be the biggest key to Louisville's BCS hopes.
The good news for Louisville is that four regular starters - C Mario Benavides, OG's John Miller and Jake Smith and T Alex Kupper - return. Brown, the unit's best prospect, is expected to start at tackle.
"I think we've made good progress," Borbely told InsideTheVille.com after Monday's practice session. "I think we're further along than we have been the past two springs. We have a much better conceptual understanding of what we want to get done, a better understanding of how to work and what the expectation level is. I think we're making good progress."
Though Benavides is out this spring with injury, Borbely said his absence hasn't hurt the offensive lines development this spring. Redshirt freshman Mike Romano has stepped up to replace Benavides on the first team.
Though the line had a few protection breakdowns in Louisville's first spring scrimmage Saturday, Bridgewater had time to consistently find open receivers downfield, while the running game thrived with running backs Jeremy Wright, Dominque Brown, and Senorise Perry.
"Honestly, the grades were low in spite of what you saw because this is a veteran group, the expectations are higher and I'm going to grade them tougher," Borbely said. "We need to learn how to finish and carry technique over from drills in a controlled offense-defense environment to a scrimmage where it's 11 on 11."
Still, Borbely was pleased that his starting group made limited mental mistakes and blocked the right defenders in the run game. The next step, according to the UofL assistant, is figuring out how to execute those blocking assignments effectively. Borbely said he plans to 'tweak' the blocking scheme this week to help the lines progress.
"When we scrimmage I don't do much coaching with them because I want to find out what they know and don't know," said Borbely. "The good news is with the first unit we had very few mental errors, the second unit had more. I thought the run game looked decent, but there's still a lot of improvement that we can make there. I thought we were pretty much on the money in terms of who to block. The part we've got to figure out is how to block. There are some things we're going to look at this week schematically that we think can help us…..some adjustments in our base running game."
Borbely is counting on Benavides, Miller and Smith to provide strength up the middle. While Benavides hasn't practiced, Borbely said Miller and Smith, who started a combined 23 games in 2011, are playing solidly this spring.
"They have to be the foundation of this thing, along with Benavides when he comes back," Borbely said. "If you're not strong up the middle you're not worth [much]. Their play should be good and they've been solid this spring. I wouldn't say they've been exceptional but they've been solid. They have a good handle on the offense."
Borbely wants Miller and Smith to become tougher in the middle.
"I've challenged them to be more physical players, tougher players because you have to have that to play in the middle," Borbely said. "It's a war in there and I feel good about both of those guys. They are just going to continue to get better."
Borbely also expects Brown, 6'5, 320, to make a major impact next season. Brown showed considerable promise after moving from defense four games into his first season at Louisville. He started two games last year and could be poised for a breakout campaign.
"He's made a lot of progress," Borbely said. "What he accomplished last year is kind of unheard of. As far as raw ability he's our most talented guy. In terms of mental toughness and being able to go hard for 70-75 snaps that's an area that we've got to build on. The best thing about Jamon besides his ability is he takes coaching and wants to be a great player. He's working to do that."
One of the major issues for Borbely is improving his units depth. A few young players have stepped up their games this spring and could provide value depth behind Louisville's starters.
"The guy that's probably come the farthest is Ryan Mack. He had the longest way to go, but he's probably made the most improvement," said Borbely. "Kam Joyer should be able to provide depth for us. I like what he's doing. Chris Acosta is kind of on the come but still has a ways to go. He's doing a good job for us. And Josh Stears, a walk-on from Manual, I told him today Alex Kupper was him two years ago. When he gets bigger and stronger he's going to have a chance to play football here. He's a hell of a player. We just have to put some weight and strength on him."