With concerns over the Trojans’ future looming after the departure of such mainstays as Rey Maualuga, Brian Cushing and Mark Sanchez, the potentially unstable Trojans can look to one reliable unit as a source of balance: the offensive line.
The already-experienced unit sacrificed none of its 2008 starters to either the NFL or lasting injury in the offseason. Understandably, such a veteran group of players arrive with hype proclaiming them the best O-line in the nation.
Naturally, offensive line coach Pat Ruel doesn’t buy into any of that kind of talk.
“Let me tell you something, you’re only as good as your last play and what you did,” Ruel said. “There’s too many times when people talk about how good you are and you start listening to it and then you’re not working as hard as you should.”
Regardless, the affable Ruel budged a little when pressed about the talent and experience of his boys.
“We have a chance to be a very good offensive line, and it’s going to be determined by how much hard work we put in and how well we prepare, and their attitude,” Ruel said.
Sixth-year senior left guard Jeff Byers agreed with Ruel about the real value of hype.
“Rankings mean nothing at the beginning of the season. The toughest challenge for a line is to perform week in and week out,” Byers said. “Offensive line’s a real special position in that every week it’s a different challenge.”
When asked about any potential weaknesses in the offensive line, Ruel wryly replied “coaching,” before continuing to offer some criticism of his highly touted players.
“I think that right now we’re behind in some pass protection stuff. We’re not clean on picking up some stuff. We’re there, but we just need to fundamentally get there,” Ruel said.
Despite Ruel’s concerns over his line’s protection against the pass rush, coach Pete Carroll expressed confidence in the unit’s ability to protect the man behind center.
“Our quarterbacks couldn’t ask for a better supporting crew around them,” Carroll said.
Junior center Kristofer O’Dowd, who was sidelined during spring practices with a torn labrum in his left shoulder, remained the one major question mark on the roster. At summer practice, O’Dowd confirmed he had been fully cleared to play. The 2008 All-Pac-10 player said that he was “confident” in the offensive line’s ability to excel.
“No one left and we’re a smarter group. Things come a lot easier and we can work on smaller details of our game to be a better unit and help this offense and help this team become our best,” O’Dowd said.
O’Dowd also denied any nervousness among his fellow starters over the upcoming game at Ohio State, simultaneously offering high praise to his daily opponents on the practice field.
“The only defensive unit we’re worried about is the defensive unit we go against every day,” O’Dowd said. “That is the best defense in the country. ”
Until this season, Ruel said, the offensive line only ever had eight or nine players in total from year to year. Ruel explained that one benefit of the unit’s retention of all of its starters has been the value of their experience to the team’s new recruits.
“We’ve finally got our numbers up a little bit, and now everybody’s talking about how we’ve got a really good talent base,” Ruel said. “Well, that’s what we want. We want our older players now to teach our younger players how to play, how to be competitors, how to be winners and how to be champions.”
Both Ruel and Carroll expressed satisfaction with the level of competition between veterans like O’Dowd and Byers and freshmen up-and-comers such as Khaled Holmes and Matt Kalil, the younger brother of former All-American Trojan center Ryan Kalil.
“We’ve got a lot of guys battling for playing time that are worthy of playing,” Carroll said. “They’re tough. They’re big enough. They’re smart football players … Now it’ll be really interesting to see if they can’t make a pitch for their playing time.”