Big strides by offensive line biggest surprise for Cards

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (KT) - At this early stage of the college football season, there's a surprise leader at the top of the Atlantic Coast Conference rushing statistics -- Louisville.

A surprise because a year ago at this time the Cardinals were on their way to permanent residence at the bottom of those stats.

In his introductory press conference, and many times since, UofL coach Scott Satterfield promised an offense predicated on a run-heavy attack, and his team has probably succeeded beyond his expectations.

Satterfield's offensive staff, headed by offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Dwayne Ledford -- who coached with him for three seasons at Appalachian State before spending the last two years as associate head coach and run game coordinator at NC State -- has totally transformed the Cards' ground game.

Last year UofL averaged just 141.5 yards rushing, which ranked 101st in the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS). Now, heading into Saturday's game against Western Kentucky, the Cards (1-1) have soared to No. 11 nationally while averaging 285.5 ypg. They never reached that level once in 2018, and three times failed to crack the century mark.

Redshirt freshman running back Javian Hawkins, from Titusville, Fla., gained 123 yards in last Saturday's 42-0 win over Eastern Kentucky after rushing for 122 in the 35-17 loss to Notre Dame. Hawkins is tied for the national lead with three runs of over 40 yards. He's the first Louisville running back with back-to-back 100-yard games in three years and the first freshman to accomplish the feat since Victor Anderson in 2008.

So what has changed in the trenches for UofL?

"Everything," redshirt sophomore guard Caleb Chandler said this week after a practice. "Literally everything. Our mindset, the way we go about our business, the way we practice, the way we prepare. Coach Ledford has instilled everything inside us."

Anything that happens when the Cards have the ball starts, of course, with Chandler and his teammates along the offensive line. That unit was a huge question mark coming into the season and was considered the team's weakest link after a 2018 season that resembled a train wreck.

"The past few years the o-line hasn't been the best here and we know that," Chandler said. "Going into the offseason everyone was talking about the o-line being weak, and we knew we had to do something about that. Coach Ledford came in here and helped us tremendously with everything. We love that man to death and would go to war with him any day of the week."

Chandler said Ledford teaches and preaches three basic tenants:

"Speed of the ball, finish and toughness. You could be doing two out of the three, but that's not good enough because he expects the best out of us and that's what we try to give him every day."

Right guard Robbie Bell, a redshirt junior, believes a condensed playbook and a simplified offense compared to last year under Bobby Petrino and offensive line coach Mike Summers has contributed to the success.

"We do the same drills and work the same techniques every single day, we don't mix up," Bell said. "It lets us keep polishing things and get better at them so it's second nature."

UofL has started the same group in both games, with junior left tackle Mekhi Becton, Florida grad transfer T.J. McCoy at center, and redshirt senior right tackle Tyler Haycraft joining Chandler and Bell.

The only position that has been somewhat in a state of flux is center, where junior Cole Bently has seen about as many snaps as McCoy. Bentley started all 12 games last season -- five at guard and seven at center.

Ledford anticipates maintaining the current rotation for the foreseeable future.

"Center is kind of like the quarterback position," he said. "Sometimes when you play two quarterbacks you say, 'The first one will get two series and the second one can sit here and watch and hear what adjustments we are making and then go in.' To me, that sixth or seventh lineman has to play multiple positions."

Ledford says he has been pleased with the progress of the line throughout fall camp and the first two games and expects continued improvement.

"This is brand new to us," Ledford said. "But as they are learning we are seeing a lot better practices, guys are being a lot more crisp and I really like the their maturity. They're such a joy to coach. I've been pleased with how they want to get better. We are still trying to get to know one another, but as we continue to work together, you can see improvement.

"We try not to get caught up in looking at where we are rankings-wise or anything like that. But at the end of the year we'll look back. I just want them to play the style I think linemen should play and by doing that I think we can be really good up front."


Russ Brown, a former sportswriter for The Courier-Journal and USA Today, covers University of Louisville sports and college football and basketball for Kentucky Today. He can be contacted at 0926.russ.brown@gmail.com






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