Louisville returns college football's second-most inexperienced team, with just 11 starters back from last year. Nowhere is that inexperience more evident than on the offensive line.
Last year, a veteran offensive front that included four seniors sprung the Cardinals' power running attack that led the Big East in rushing at 175 yards a game.
NFL draftee Byron Stingily and company allowed just 18 sacks, second behind Connecticut in the conference. The Cardinals will begin this season Thursday at home against Murray State without junior Mario Benavides, their lone returning starter up front, because of an ankle injury that has cost him much of fall practice.
Benavides, a candidate for the Rimington Award as the nation's top center, has started 24 of his 25 games at Louisville, missing only last year's game against Arkansas State. Junior Alex Kupper filled in for Benavides in that game, making him Louisville's only lineman with a previous start when the Cardinals face the Racers on Thursday night.
Benavides' injury is day-to-day with no immediate timetable for return. His slow start forced Coach Charlie Strong to patch his front unit but allowed him to see younger players develop.
"With Mario getting hurt so early in the camp, we were able to get that offensive line, piece it together and get the five guys out there that we needed to get out there," he said.
Kupper had been slated to start at left tackle but will play center until Benavides returns.
Two guards seeing their first collegiate action — redshirt freshman Jake Smith and true freshman John Miller — will join Kupper to form the interior line. Senior right tackle Ryan Kessling played in all 13 games last year while senior Hector Hernandez, who played sparingly in 2010 after sitting out 2009 with academic troubles, will start Thursday at left tackle.
Kupper will snap the ball to junior quarterback Will Stein, who got official word on Monday that he will start. Both Stein and Kupper are former walk-ons who won multiple state titles at Louisville's Trinity High School.
"We have a great bond. We went to Trinity together and played all throughout high school together," Stein said of his longtime teammate. "He's definitely someone I trust up there. And that's definitely key in a quarterback-center relationship — if you don't trust a guy you're getting the snaps from, that can definitely mess up a lot of plays."
Stein said he's still a little shocked that both he and Kupper have risen to be starters together but years of effort made it possible.
"We both knew that we could play at his level; we just needed other people to believe in us," Stein said. "With hard work and just dedication to this program we've proven that, not only to ourselves but to the coaches, and then hopefully to the community out here on Thursday."
Stein will be the Cardinals' fifth different opening day starting quarterback in as many seasons. True freshman Teddy Bridgewater and sophomore Dominque Brown will also see action Thursday.