If you’ve read my column over the years, you’ll know that I would far prefer to be on a team with a great defense and offensive line and average quarterback, than a team with a great quarterback but not much else. In other words, I’ll gladly trade you several Matt Barkleys for Alabama’s defense and O-line (Nick Saban isn’t making that trade). And as I thought about the Trojans during the offseason, I was optimistic that I might get to see the Trojans with my formula in place.
Here’s the rationale: Add (1) a young defense that should be starting to mature with some strong talent at every level and put them in the Clancy Pendergast blitzing 5-2 scheme; plus (2) an offensive line with four returning starters and finally a little bit of depth, and marry them with a highly-regarded offensive line coach; plus (3) a new QB, who even if good, will push coach Lane Kiffin to be more run-focused. Is this not my recipe for a much improved USC team?
Well, I was able to watch one practice in mid-August, and -- obviously -- the Hawaii game. Conclusions are hard to draw so early, but like everyone, I’m incredibly impressed with Part 1 of my formula above, and while it gets all the media attention, I’m not even too concerned about Part 3. But I think USC’s fortunes this year are going to hinge on Part 2 -- whether or not this offensive line improves dramatically from what we’ve seen so far.
More than any other position group on the field, the offensive line truly is a unit. It plays together. If the unit is strong, it can even make up for an individual player who might be vulnerable. But if the line isn’t playing well together as a unit, even five strong players can be a liability. The bad news for the Trojans is that this line isn’t playing as a unit right now. But the good news is that the most improvement for a young line comes in the first few weeks of the season, often because it’s the first time a young group, new to playing together, gets to face different fronts, different personnel, etc., and as they learn to adjust and adapt and communicate with each other, the learning curve comes fast. So the “unit” we see in late September can look very different than what we see in late August. Even Alabama, which lost three linemen from last year to the NFL, and reloaded with talented upperclassmen, struggled up front against an average Virginia Tech defensive front on Saturday in its first game together.
Now, let’s not kid ourselves. You don’t look at this line and see a Tony Boselli, or a Matt Kalil, or a Bruce Matthews. Maybe it’s just that these guys are still very young (the center, left guard and left tackle are all still within 18 months of graduating high school). But USC doesn’t have a deep pool of juniors and seniors to deploy right now. This is the 2013 USC line, and with this group, there was far too much penetration in the run game, especially near the goal line. There were missed assignments leading to sacks and tackles for loss. There was an inability to get up to the second level and block linebackers on runs plays. And there were -- plain and simple -- individual linemen getting beat one-on-one in pass protection, and blown back in the run game. There were many plays where the group, and individuals, looked strong (pancake blocks by Kevin Graf, good surge in the middle by Marcus Martin and Max Tuerk), but to be a good line, and a good lineman, it has to happen consistently ... down after down after down.
It isn’t going to get easier -- certainly not against Arizona State at the end of September, but I would go so far as to say not even in the next 3 weeks against Washington State, Boston College and Utah State, all three of which are likely stronger defensively than Hawaii. And later in the season against a conference slate that is certainly on the rise, it’s going to be considerably tougher than what USC saw last Thursday night. So, after Week 1, it seems clear to me that this season, this Trojan team will go as far as this O-line will take them, and if that’s going to be a long way, then this line better start getting better -- quickly.
As I like to do, I need to mention some players that got my attention this weekend: Dion Bailey, he just keeps making plays. Devon Kennard, welcome back and stay healthy. Marcus Martin, a strong first game at center despite the struggles of the rest of the line. And do the Trojans finally have some running back depth again? Tre Madden and Justin Davis looked like a great combination even without Silas Redd, and Jahleel Pinner looked strong at fullback.
Onto Washington State.