As the offensive line goes, so go the 2013 USC Trojans.
That was the feeling of many coming into the season as USC coach Lane Kiffin talked about a renewed sense of wanting to control the line of scrimmage. The fact that the Trojans had five experienced starters returning, along with a deep group of running backs, fostered a feeling of optimism for success if the line could come together.
Kiffin showed how important the line was when he brought in veteran offensive line coach Mike Summers and paired him with existing position coach James Cregg to double up the duties up front. There was also some shuffling in the starting lineup during fall camp with Chad Wheeler moving into the left tackle spot and Aundrey Walker transitioning to right guard to share time with John Martinez.
Through the first three games of the season, the results have shown good progress, particularly in the run game. The Trojans have averaged 43 rushing attempts per game and are just short of 200-yards per game on the ground.
“There is some good stuff going on up there with the offensive line,” Kiffin said. “I really feel like the decisions made in January -- our staff decisions, scheme decisions and practice decisions to be more physical -- are paying off.”
While the run game has been consistently good, there is still room for improvement with pass protection and penalties but those areas would expect to be addressed in the coming weeks as the line continues to gel with the new lineup.
“Run blocking is going really well,” USC right tackle Kevin Graf said. “Pass blocking, we really haven’t gotten to do that much, it’s weird. We keep on doing so well with the run that we rarely pass it. We’ve been practicing like this since spring ball. We really put an emphasis on running the ball and it makes us look a little more nasty.”
Of course, any offensive lineman will tell you they love run blocking, especially those linemen who have been around the USC program in recent years when the ground game often took a back seat to the aerial circus of the Matt Barkley era.
“You gotta like it a lot,” Graf said. “When you run the ball as much as we have, it’s a lot of fun, especially for the O-line. We love getting off the line and we love hitting people, that’s what we like to do. We just have to keep on doing it. You can’t do it one game and then the next game not be able to do it. We just need to be consistent and make sure we’re doing it every game.”
As consistently good as the run game has been, the pass blocking has been inconsistent and there have been issues with drive-stopping penalties as well. These issues often involve breakdowns in communication, something that usually takes time to develop for a line that only came together midway through fall camp.
“Our ability to communicate is very important,” Graf said. “If you don’t have that communication, the offensive line doesn’t work. It’s the only position where you have to have five guys doing the right thing at the right time so to be able to communicate is something you need. If you mess that up, you’ll see it. You’ll see mistakes and you’ll see bad games out of us.”
So far the line has made good progress through three games and they will look to keep that up against the next opponent, Utah State, which offers a strong challenge for a Trojans team looking to end a stretch of three home games on a high note. The Aggies -- who won 11 games last season -- are known for their dynamic quarterback Chuckie Keeton and are ranked No. 13 in the nation in total defense (286-yards per game).
“They’re a good team, a really good team,” Graf said. “Their front seven is really strong, powerful guys. They are a very impressive defense, it’s not just their offense. It’s gonna be a great test for us.”