Louisville had no need to telegraph exactly what it would do on the recruiting trail, its needs glaringly obvious. The Cards had to bulk up on the offensive line.
Given the group they signed Wednesday, there was reason for Bobby Petrino to declare, “We loaded up pretty well.”
Louisville signed five offensive linemen, three of whom are ESPN four-star prospects. All have size, most especially the three highest-rated players: junior college transfer Ronald Rudd (6-foot-5, 318 pounds), Mekhi Becton (6-7, 335) and Toryque Bateman (6-6, 305). Becton, considered a Virginia Tech lean, announced his decision on signing day, a nice way for Louisville to close its best class since 2011.
Couple the new additions with new offensive line coach Mike Summer, charged with revamping the group, and suddenly there is reason to believe Louisville can turn around a struggling unit in short order. There is no choice, really.
Louisville allowed 47 sacks a year ago, continuing a disturbing trend that has seen no growth with that position in particular since Petrino arrived. In three years, Louisville has allowed 129 sacks.
The hope is that this group begins to change all that.
“I feel like we hit the numbers that we needed, but also the type of athlete and type of players that can have the ability to compete right away to play but also develop and get better and help us down the road,” Petrino said.
Three starters depart from the line, leaving plenty of opportunity for the incoming recruits to make an impact. Cole Bentley already is enrolled in school and will compete in spring practice, giving him extra time to get himself prepared for a possible starting role. That’s especially important because both starting guards are gone, and Kenny Thomas is the only guard returning with any extended playing experience.
There won’t be hesitation to play true freshmen, either. In 2015, Petrino started two true freshmen on the offensive line for the first time as a head coach. One of them, Geron Christian, has started every game at left tackle over the last two seasons.
It is impossible to overstate how important the development of this group will be headed into 2017. With Lamar Jackson returning and teams scheming a way to slow him down over the final month of the 2016 season, Louisville must find new and different ways to take advantage of their best player.
Working with and developing Jackson as a passer is obviously a priority. But without an effective offensive line, it becomes difficult to do much of anything. Especially when a defense can scheme to take advantage of what it believes to be a weakness. That is how the end of 2016 played out, leaving Petrino with no other options.
Jackson won the Heisman Trophy for a reason. And since he will be around for at least one more season, Louisville cannot waste the opportunity it has with a once-in-a-generation type player. His presence alone should give the Cards a chance in the Atlantic Division. But Louisville needs more than just him to step up. It needs a collective effort and a radical change in mindset to reach the goals it failed to meet in a bittersweet 2016.