Louisville O-line has 'come a long way'

CHARLOTTE, N.C. - The University of Louisville's offensive line is one of the most improved units on the team for the Cardinals as they prepare for Tuesday's Belk Bowl matchup against Georgia.

The University of Louisville's offensive line appeared to be one of the weak links on the team early in the season.

The Cardinals line wasn't opening holes, was having trouble protecting the quarterback and was making all kinds of silly penalties.

But that sure has changed.

As the Cardinals prepare to take on Georgia in Tuesday night's Belk Bowl at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C., the U of L offensive line is playing like one of the strengths of the team. The Cardinals have run for at least 150 yards in five of six games.

"They've come a long way," running back Brandon Radcliff said. "They're doing a nice job of opening holes, making sure we have somewhere to run. They've improved."

Even with three starters - John Miller, Jamon Brown and Jake Smith - back from last season, it took the line a while to jell. The Cardinals were working in a new center - former walk-on Tobijah Hughley - and had a new coach - Chris Klenakis.

"It took us a while to get on the same page," Brown said. "We have come a long way from the position changes to the personnel changes and in the later part of the season I think you saw us finally come together. We finally found the right pieces to the puzzle."

Klenakis said it did take time to get everyone on the same page, noting the move of Aaron Epps to right tackle was the final piece to the puzzle.

"The more reps you take with the guy beside you, the more your instincts kick in," Klenakis said. "Plus, getting familiar with the system and our demands and techniques and how we want to get things done, there's no question it takes time."

Klenakis said the 6-foot-6, 300-pound Epps - a redshirt junior - has given the line "a lot of energy" and with the three veterans Hughley was the "perfect fit." He replaced Ryan Mack, who recently graduated and left the program for Memphis.

"Aaron came in there and he plays hard and he does what he is coached to do," Klenakis said. "He's fundamentally sound and brings a lot of energy."

Smith, who has started since his freshman season and moved from center to guard this season, said the addition to Epps in the mix was a "big key for us."

"Aaron brings a great attitude in there," Smith said. "I don't know if that changed the dynamics or if it was a perfect storm of just everybody playing well together. We love having Aaron in there and he's been playing his butt off."

The Cardinals line did have a lot of penalties early in the season that drove their position coach "nuts," but those have been cut down as the season went on.

"Those things drive you nuts as a coach," Klenakis said. "We were not trying to make those mistakes. Nobody goes out there with the objective of making a mistake, so when you make mistakes it motivates you a great deal."

The Cardinals are in Charlotte and Brown said he and his two senior mates are "ready" for one last run on the line.

"We started playing our best ball from an offensive line standpoint late in the season," Brown said. "Now, we just look to build on."

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