The cliches and common phrases may have become trite, but that does not make the right ones any less true. Games are won in the trenches. The offensive line has struggled this past season. Their trouble has translated to trouble for quarterback Cody Kessler and the running backs.
USC ranks 97 in sacks allowed— tied with schools like Akron and Florida Atlantic. They have allowed 20 sacks at this point in the season, with five more games to go. In tackles for a loss allowed, the Trojans come in at rank 105, allowing 55 so far. This is a far cry from 2011 when USC allowed only 8 sacks and 52 tackles for a loss the entire season— good for first and seventh respectively. The drop off in performance can be marked up to losing center Khaled Holmes and left tackle Matt Kalil to the NFL draft. Holmes was selected in the fourth round, 121st overall and Kalil was taken in the first round, fourth overall.
Former head coach Lane Kiffin saw the difference even from 2011 to 2012, when the team still had Holmes. He hired offensive line coach Mike Summers during the off season in addition to retaining James Cregg. Clearly, the problem still has not been solved.
Three of the starters from that 2011 offensive line remain on the roster: Kevin Graf, John Martinez, and Marcus Martin. Martin has since moved to center. Martinez has been displaced at right guard by Aundrey Walker. Only Graf remains at the same spot of right tackle. Injuries tell part of the story.
During the off season Martinez was dealing with a foot injury that led to an eventual replacement by Walker. Then the injuries hampered Walker’s efforts as well. During the latest game against Utah, Graf also left with an injury. In order to compensate for Graf’s injury, three spots on the offensive line had to be shuffled. Left guard Max Tuerk moved to Graf’s spot at right tackle. The void left by Tuerk was filled by Walker, which returns Martinez back to right guard. Only Martin and left tackle, Chad Wheeler remain in the roles they started at this season. That brings us to the next issue.
Although Wheeler seems to be technically sound, he remains undersized for a college left tackle. His weight is listed at 275 pounds— on a 6 foot 7 frame. That makes him the tallest and lightest player on the offensive line. When matched up against players like Notre Dame’s Stephon Tuitt, a massive 6 foot 6, 312 pound defensive lineman, Wheeler can only do so much. To put it in perspective, Tuitt weighs more than even the heaviest of USC’s offensive linemen.
Offensive tackle recruits have been rare since the sanctions. The release of Seantrel Henderson from his letter of intent following in 2010 hurt USC as well. Currently, there are eight players on the roster listed as tackles, excluding Wheeler. Two of them are walk-ons— one played as a converted tight end against Utah. Two— Tuerk and Graf— are already playing. Zach Banner and Jordan Simmons are out for the season with injuries— Simmons was actually recruited as a guard, anyway. The last two include a true freshman and a redshirt sophomore who weighs less than Wheeler. The lack of options has thrust Wheeler into the position before he could develop more.
The combination of sour luck and bad circumstances surrounding the offensive line limits what the entire offense can do. Just take a look at third down conversion statistics. USC holds a dismal 27.36% conversion rate, which is near the worst in the nation at 118. Tackles for loss, sacks, and penalties by the offensive line contribute majorly to long first, second, and third down plays. Playbooks rarely have good options for converting in such long yardage situations.
Conversely, USC ranks seventh in sacks and fourteenth in tackles for a loss. They have sacked opposing quarterbacks 26 times and tackled for a loss 60 times. The difference in performance between the offense and defense can be seen in these simple statistics.
Continued development of the offensive line and getting recruits at tackle like Jordan Austin and Jordan Poland should improve the offense in future years. That provides little solace for this season, however. The current line continues to play its heart out and suffer losses.