Does USC football’s offensive line lack the talent of a top tier program?

Tim Warner/Getty Images
Tim Warner/Getty Images /

USC football’s offensive line struggled to support the team’s skill players in 2018. But is the unit’s failure due to lack of talent or something else?

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The staple of many successful college football teams is an offensive line that is capable of protecting its quarterback, opening holes for its running backs, and moving the defensive line in short yardage situations. So far under Clay Helton, USC has been unsuccessful in checking any of those boxes.

It is a general rule of thumb that an offensive line’s performance can be judged through rushing statistics. While this does not paint the entire picture (running backs can mask or magnify o-line mistakes), the offensive line is responsible for a large percentage of a running game’s outcome.

Unfortunately, USC’s picture looks like kindergarten finger painting. The Trojans finished 107th in the FBS in yards per game at 133.5 and 77th in rushing S&P+. While that sounds bad, the results are actually worse if you take a few minutes to dissect the stats.

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In 2018, the Trojans rushed for 1,602 yards total. However, USC rushed for 219 yards against UNLV, 253 yards against Arizona, and 332 yards against Oregon State, resulting in the grand total of 804 yards. Why is this important? Because it means USC ran for 50 percent of its total rushing yardage in just three games against some of its least talented opponents.

In fact, USC was held under four yards per carry seven times over the course of the year. Obviously, it is more difficult to run the ball against better teams but these statistics reinforce the theory that USC’s offensive line is not physical enough to compete against even average Power-5 opponents.

In addition to issues with run blocking, the offensive line struggled with the mental side of the game with far too many missed assignments and penalties. Then, to compound the unit’s woes, USC quarterbacks (primarily JT Daniels) did their blockers no favors in the passing game by holding the ball too long. Plus, Daniels is currently incapable of avoiding opposing pass rushers, which led to a -149-yard rushing total for the freshman.


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Eventually, the situation became too toxic to ignore and offensive line coach Neil Callaway was relieved of his duties by Helton after the Trojans’ loss to ASU. According to redshirt senior Toa Lobendahn, Callaway’s replacement, Tim Drevno, “just [tried] to teach us some different techniques on certain things” while finishing up the last four games of the season.

So why is the offensive line playing so poorly? Is it the coaches? The practice style? The players? To get a better sense of what is going on, the first step is to evaluate the talent USC has on the offensive line.

CHECK OUT: USC’s Top 10 performers in 2018

USC’s football team dominates recruiting on the west coast with no major competitors west of Austin, Texas. Oregon, Stanford, and Washington manage to steal away a couple players combined each recruiting cycle, but the Trojans generally have the pick of the litter. From 2014 through 2018 USC ranked 10th, 2nd, 10th, 4th, and 4th nationally in recruiting, which resulted in the fourth most talented roster in college football last year.

Logically, many fans wonder how effective USC’s recruiting has been on the offensive line due to the lackluster results over the past few seasons. It is feasible that a program could stockpile talent at every other position to earn a high ranking but still be lacking in other areas with average recruits. But that is not the case at USC.

Since 2014, USC has recruited nine offensive line recruits that ranked in the Top 10 in their position nationally (Stanford, known for their offensive line play, has six) according to the 247Sports recruiting rankings.

With this dominant edge in recruiting, the only schools USC should be compared to recruiting-wise are the teams in the College Football Playoff. So how do the Trojans stack up?

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To examine this issue, the player scores from 247Sports of the Top 10 offensive line recruits from Alabama, Clemson, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, and USC in the past five recruiting cycles were averaged. The scores from each reveal a composite talent score for each school’s offensive line.

Alabama was the highest-rated group with a .9722 out of a 1.0. USC was the second-highest rated line with a .9540 score, followed by Notre Dame at .9502, Clemson at .9208, and Oklahoma at .9175.

It is unsurprising that Alabama produced the best recruiting classes out of these teams. However,  it is eye-opening that USC is actually closer to Alabama than it is to Clemson or Oklahoma in o-line recruiting. Clemson and OU both had multiple players in their Top 10 that received a rating below a 9.0 which is approaching three-star territory.

Skeptics may consider the five-year approach as too broad of a time period to evaluate the current status of USC’s offensive line, so let’s take a look at just this past season.

USC’s five primary starters on the offensive line in 2018—Austin Jackson, Chris Brown, Toa Lobendahn, Andrew Voorhees, and Chuma Edoga—combined for a .9415 talent score last season. Alabama’s score was significantly better at .9721, but Notre Dame (.9276), Clemson (.9017), and Oklahoma’s (.8906) all rated lower than USC.

SEE ALSO: USC’s five worst moments in 2018

While the raw numbers suggest that USC should have the second-best offensive line out of these teams, that is clearly a departure from reality. The lowest-rated team, Oklahoma, featured the top S&P+ rushing offense in 2018 and Alabama finished second. Meanwhile, Clemson and Notre Dame were back-to-back at 34th and 35th respectively. USC was 77th in 2018.

Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy
Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy /

After examining that data, the logical assumption is that USC does, in fact, possess the talent to be an excellent offensive line. So the question remains: Why aren’t they?

There is the theory that west coast recruits simply are not as physical or as committed to football as their southern and midwestern counterparts due to societal influences and more lifestyle options in general. Yet this ignores the fact that Stanford has been physical for years and USC bullied the entire nation just a decade ago. It just doesn’t seem plausible that young athletes have completely lost interest in being an elite offensive lineman in that span of time.

No, the primary issue is clearly the lack of physicality in USC’s practices. This point is constantly emphasized when USC’s struggles are discussed but it is such a vital step in USC’s return to the national stage that it must be reiterated until visible adjustments are apparent.

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The lack of development of USC’s offensive linemen by the last two Trojan head coaches, Steve Sarkisian and Helton, is nearly criminal. Despite all of the highly-regarded “big uglies” that have worn a USC uniform in recent years, the last time USC had an offensive lineman drafted in the first round of the NFL Draft was 2012 when tackle Matt Kalil was selected by the Vikings fourth overall. During the Pete Carroll era, it was essentially an annual occurrence that a Trojan offensive lineman would be selected in the first or second round of the draft.

For comparison, the last Alabama offensive lineman to be drafted in the first round was center Ryan Kelly in 2016. Oklahoma’s Lane Johnson was selected in the first round in 2013, and Notre Dame had two first-rounders taken in 2017 when Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey both heard their names called.

Interestingly enough, Clemson hasn’t had an offensive lineman drafted in the first or second round of the NFL draft since 1971, but this is the program (see Swinney, Dabo) that took a poorly-rated high school defensive tackle in George Cervenka ( .8495) and turned him into their starting right guard while still competing with Alabama.

CHECK OUT: USC must fix basic issues to become elite again

This begs the question: Why are USC’s linemen not developing? The clear-cut answer is that the lack of development in USC’s offensive and defensive lines is a consequence of the NCAA sanction-era approach to practice at USC. When scholarship numbers were down, USC couldn’t afford to have its best players, regardless of their position, go down with an injury in practice. Helton’s concept of what a major Division I football practice looked like developed during that period as he coached under Kiffin and Sarkisian.

To get better at anything an individual must gain experience. All-out practice reps against some of the most talented players in the nation either forces an individual to be better or quit. USC’s linemen are losing precious opportunities to experience the process of struggling and failing in practice and then finding ways to overcome that failure through improvement in technique, heart, or physicality.

USC football has issues in coaching, culture, strength, conditioning, and nutrition, but it is not bereft of talent.

To compound the football issues, there is a sense that USC’s strength, conditioning, and nutrition are holding the team back in terms of physicality and even health. When players are the ones asking for changes in those areas, that is an enormous red flag.

So what does the future look like for USC’s offensive line? The 2019 season will be a year of uncertainty, change, and ultimately, a time to improve. Despite losing veterans in Lobendahn, Edoga, and its best performer in Chris Brown, the USC line could easily outperform last year’s group.

The addition of Kliff Kingsbury as offensive coordinator should alleviate some of the pressure on the USC blockers. Kingsbury wants to get the ball out quickly on most passes and keeps defenses guessing with his solid pass-to-rush ratio. The linemen have an opportunity to impress if they can simply execute their assignments against spread out opposing defenses.

SEE MORE: How USC’s current players fit Kliff Kingsbury’s scheme

Aside from penciling in Austin Jackson at left tackle, USC’s line is wide open. The only other returning starter, Andrew Voorhees, was USC’s worst-rated offensive lineman in 2017, and as a result, he ceded playing time to Alijah Vera-Tucker throughout the season.

The battle to watch is at center with Brett Neilon and Justin Dedich competing for the chance to lead the USC line. Neilon performed well last season in his one major appearance against UNLV but Dedich is known to have a mean streak and embodies the mindset a successful offensive lineman. With both guard positions potentially vacated, it may be an opportunity for one of the two centers to slide over one spot by displaying the type of tenacity USC lacked last season.

After taking all of this into consideration, the conclusion is clear. USC football has issues in coaching, culture, strength, conditioning, and nutrition, but it is not bereft of talent. Yes, individual players must find the intrinsic motivation to improve and perform, but it is the responsibility of the Trojan coaches to create an atmosphere where players are unable to feel secure in their role. The fact that Toa Lobendahn never spent a single down on the sideline for his errant snaps last season is indicative of a culture of complacency.

While success in the upcoming season is expected, it is paramount that the habits of this program improve so it is once again capable of preparing its talent, mentally and physically, to compete against the best and move on to the NFL. This is a crucial period to show improvement, with Helton’s job on the line and a 2020 matchup with Alabama looming. If USC can reach these goals, the wins will take care of themselves.