With Spring Ball back in action after USC’s spring break, it’s time to look at a few areas where the Trojans could afford to get ahead on improving before the fall. First up is a faction of the squad that had some struggles last year, and though they overcame them, it is likely that their abilities might be tested again: The O-Line.
Last season, it was no secret that USC’s O-line was very inexperienced. Week in and week out, one of the main storylines revolved around whether the front line would be able to hold up against bigger, faster, and more experienced D-lines of other teams in the conference (see: Stanford, Oregon, and ASU). During the first half of the season, it seemed as if the answer was “no”: USC had a pretty stagnant running game for weeks, relying heavily on Robert Woods and Marquis Lee to get the job done. However, even that was an issue sometimes as the pass protection for quarterback Matt Barkley just wasn’t always there. There was also the fact that the coaches played musical linemen at the left guard position for a few weeks: one week, the starter was Jeremy Galten, a juco transfer; the next week it was Marcus Martin, a freshman who came in as an offensive tackle but got moved to the guard position. Though we often saw glimpses of the O-line’s potential, it’s true abilities never really crystallized until USC faced Cal in week six. From then on, the Wall of Troy was unstoppable, and it showed in the running presence that was finally established in Curtis McNeal, who had the game of his life against Stanford.
Moving forward to this season, it is a give that the O-line is much more experienced than it was last season. Also to their credit—at to Matt Barkley’s newfound ability to scramble better—Barkley was only sacked eight times last season, a new record for USC. So Trojan fans can feel confident that with the majority of the O-line returning, USC should be able to repeat its success.
But there is one hole—and it’s a big one—that the Trojans will be tasked with filling this coming season. The star of the O-line was left tackle Matt Kalil and during the offseason he elected to forgo his senior year in favor of the NFL draft. It’s hard to explain just how pivotal to USC’s offense Kalil was, but the blocked kicks he had that were game changers and the way he protected Barkley’s blindside, Michael Oher-status, will be sorely missed. So what will the O-line look like now?
As of now, it looks as if Kevin Graf will be the starter at LT, moving over from the right guard position. Another new face on the line will be Aundrey “The Giant” Walker, the 6-6, 320-pound behemoth that USC nabbed out of Ohio last year. Walker didn’t get much playing time during his freshman year, but he did lose 50 pounds in the 14 months that he has been with the team. This should make Walker more agile, and more of a functional, formidable threat to opposing teams. As for the middle of the line, it looks like this: Marcus Martin at left guard, Khaled Holmes at center, and John Martinez at right guard. Also worth noting: redshirt freshman Cyrus Hobbi got a few reps with the first team one day during camp when Martin had class, and the coaches said he did a fine job in Martin’s absence.
Anything could change between now and fall, but if the Trojans elect to keep the O-line looking like this, there is no question that fans can expect exciting things out of this bunch. They are familiar with the system now, they are older and above all else, they are ready to help lead USC’s run to the national championship, a run that has eluded the Trojans for three seasons. They still have a lot of work to do, but early on it looks as if the coaches are hard at work hammering out the kinks now, so they can avoid a repeat of the half-season slump that USC experienced last year.
Next, we will look at another major area of concern for USC: the running game.