Amid the third season since former USC coach Pete Carroll left the Trojans in the lurch, it’s clear the current Seattle Seahawks coach has left an impression on USC in 2012.
USC still benefits from Carroll’s cultivation of the brazen, rock-star culture recruits find so attractive, and the Kiffin regime often echoes Carroll’s “Always Compete” mantra.
But what often goes unnoticed about Carroll is a shortcoming that Kiffin is still scrambling to overcome: Carroll neglected to recruit enough offensive linemen in his later years with the Trojans.
I could provide a statistical breakdown of last Saturday’s offensive debacle against Stanford, or recount the offensive line’s various missteps, but we all know the line’s performance was simply atrocious; there’s no way to sugarcoat it.
Casual fans usually aren’t trained to detect superior or subpar blocking, mostly because there’s too much activity occurring. Besides, we prefer to watch the dazzling playmakers on the outside.
Indeed, the anonymity of playing offensive line is a double-edged sword. Unless you’re a standout like former left tackle Matt Kalil, you’re unlikely to get noticed, whether you’re executing well or playing terribly.
That’s what was so appalling about the offensive line’s play against the Cardinal: We quickly noticed how bad it was.
Senior quarterback Matt Barkley was driven into the ground after hand-offs on run plays — something that’s wholly unacceptable. The offensive line made Stanford inside linebacker Shayne Skov, who was playing in just his fifth game in two years after undergoing knee surgery in 2011 and serving a one-game suspension to open 2012 after a drunk driving arrest, look like a turbo-charged Ray Lewis.
So, how did we get here?
From 2006-10, Carroll’s recruiting classes signed a mere 13 offensive line recruits. The number is practically 12, however, as 2010 five-star offensive tackle prospect Seantrel Henderson asked to be released from his scholarship upon learning of USC’s sanctions in June 2010. Though 2010 was ostensibly Kiffin’s first class, I consider it Carroll’s final class because Kiffin took over a month before 2010 National Signing Day and the class was already largely in place.
On average, USC doled out around 20 scholarships per year from 2006-10; generally, two went to offensive linemen.
That’s not to say Carroll didn’t recruit impact players up front. In 2008, he signed a banner class of future first round picks Tyron Smith and Kalil, as well as senior center Khaled Holmes. In 2009, he signed current starters John Martinez and Kevin Graf.
But there were also some clear misses: 2008 recruits Daniel Campbell and Matt Meyer never provided depth to the unit, as Campbell was never cleared academically and Meyer retired after his freshman year because of recurring foot injuries.
Sophomore guard Giovanni Di Paolo — USC’s only other offensive lineman recruit in 2010 besides Henderson — has battled injuries and is not listed on the two-deep depth chart.
The issue is that Carroll took relatively fewer offensive linemen than his competitors, thus creating serious depth issues.
For comparison’s sake, from 2006-10, LSU and Alabama both signed 20 offensive linemen apiece — seven more than USC. The bruising Cardinal has remade its image mostly with dominating offensive linemen classes, bringing in 17 during that five year span.
The impact of allotting relatively fewer scholarships for offensive linemen was best exemplified in USC’s early depth chart.
Against Hawai’i, USC’s backups for the starting offensive line were, from left to right, true freshman Max Tuerk, former walk-on Abe Markowitz, who has only three career games under his belt, redshirt freshman Cyrus Hobbi, junior college transfer Jeremy Galten, who lost the competition in 2011 for the starting left guard spot to then-freshman Marcus Martin and walk-on Nathan Guertler.
Now, this isn’t to undermine any of these players. In fact, Tuerk is vying with sophomore offensive tackle Aundrey Walker in practice this week for the starting assignment against California Saturday, and Hobbi is likely Holmes’ ultimate replacement next year. But, at the moment, these backups don’t inspire much confidence as replacements in the case that any starters suffer long-term injuries.
Moreover, they don’t really cause the starters to look over their shoulders and fret about losing their jobs. It’s natural to question whether a sense of complacency has seeped into this current starting group. Just this week, Kiffin notably singled out Walker’s lack of effort against Stanford as problematic.
Positions on the offensive line are notoriously difficult to learn, which is why analysts often consider fielding young linemen a weakness. Kiffin, unlike Carroll, understands the importance of bringing in an influx of offensive linemen each year, so USC can constantly groom experienced replacements.
In his first two recruiting cycles, Kiffin brought in eight offensive line recruits — even though he was hampered by NCAA sanctions that limited his available scholarships.
It will take a season or two to benefit from these signings, but Kiffin’s long-term vision will ensure fewer future offensive line performances like the ones against Stanford last weekend and Arizona State in 2011.
Though the lights shine brightest on the skilled positions, without the gritty, thankless work in the trenches, their efforts are all for naught.
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