Louisville has to replace two starters on the offensive line this season -- center Mario Benavides and left tackle Alex Kupper. The good news is that three veterans return on the line in right guard Jake Smith, right tackle Jamon Brown and left guard John Miller.
But there is no getting around that the new faces will have some work to do when spring practice opens next week. I had a chance to catch up with Smith, the veteran of the group with 25 starts, and ask about the changes and expectations headed into 2013. Here is a little of what he had to say.
How much work does your group have to do this spring in trying to get different players integrated as starters?
JS: Losing Mario and [Alex Kupper] is huge. Those guys were paramount to our success last year. We’re just going to have to replace their productivity with guys we’re bringing back. Kam [Joyer] started some games, and then Nacho [Garcia] and Ryan Mack, him and Nacho are going to be duking it out at left tackle. We’re going to have to bring those guys along. Myself personally, and Jamon and John, we’re going to have a lot of growing up to do. We’re going to need to find some continuity between the offensive line. It started in the offseason and spring ball’s going to be a big benchmark for where we’re at right now.
Are there things you can do to help Kam along?
JS: Communication is one of the biggest things when you transition from a guy who’s played but hasn’t started. When you’re out there and the bullets are flying, it’s sometimes hard to recognize some of the things that are going on. Kup was by far the biggest communicator on the line last year, and I’m going to have to step into that role and kind of help these guys out. I’ve got my fair share of experience. I’ve got 25 starts under my belt. John has 20 and Jamon has a lot himself, so we’re going to have to come in and communicate and teach these guys how to carry themselves as starters. And next year, I wouldn’t say there’s going to be any growing pains but we’re definitely going to have a lot to improve on and it’s going to start in spring.
Mario is a player you never had to worry about, because he always knew what to do. So how do the expectations now change with a new starter at center?
JS: Mario’s a guy who’s been there. The last four years have been his and before him it was Eric Wood, so he learned from the best and Kam learned from the best, too. If there’s anybody you model yourself after, Mario’s certainly the guy, and it’s just going to take a lot of adjustments and a lot of getting used to, but I think by the season we’ll be fine.
When you said you want to take on a bigger communication role, how do you go about training yourself to do that?
JS: It’s kind of a long process. I’d like to think last year I knew what was going on pretty well but me and Jamon and John, we’re just going to have to become more students of the game. The more you know what’s going on, the more conviction you can have when you make your calls and when you’re recognizing defenses and trying to make calls for other guys. I’m not saying nobody is going to know what’s going on but say somebody gets caught up in a sticky situation. You’re always going to need that guy on the line who can make a call for them and direct traffic. I think it’s going to be a joint effort with the guys who have played pretty extensively. I think Kam will be fine in there. He’s a physical freak. Nacho, he’s a young guy, he’s going to come along. He’s got a really good attitude and he’s pretty smart, too. So we’ll just have to see how it goes.
How much does it help that the three returning starters have so much experience on the line?
JS: It helps a lot. Obviously, we’re still starters but we’re moving into a little different role than we had last year. We rode Mario and Kup’s coattails last year and we’re going to have to be the guys who can really bring this thing along. I think we’ll be fine in doing that. It’s just going to take a lot of time in the film room. We need to get a better grasp of the game. We need to make sure we hone our skills and understanding.
How do you feel going into the spring knowing a lot of people are expecting a perfect season?
JS: There’s no question that the pressure’s going to be on us this year. There’s going to be a bulls-eye on our back with everybody we play, so this offseason the coaches have been preparing us for that and really been putting the pressure on us in workouts and making sure we don’t get complacent like we did last year because there’s always room for improvement. We still lost two games. We’re going into next season and we don’t want to lose any games. It’s all about knowing how to win, learning how to win and learning how to be a consistent winner.