After two weeks of spring practice, USC’s offensive-line still looks more like five strangers at a Big & Tall than a cohesive, synchronized unit. While the big men pushed around the scout team with relative ease at Tuesday’s practice, first team drills made it clear that the starting five still have some getting acquainted to do.
“We’re just starting to mesh as a unit,” redshirt junior tackle Matt Kalil said. “We’re still getting all of our plays down, but I think we’re a lot better than we were on day one.”
Kalil and company’s coordination problems became most evident in zone running drills. Zone blocking requires the line to move up the field at an angle as a unit. The synchronized push forward and to the side should stretch the defense and create seams between defenders. If the line moves together, you should see tailbacks C.J. Gable or Allen Bradford sauntering across Howard Jones Field. If the line breaks, you will likely see junior defensive end Armond Armstead in the backfield chewing on ball carriers like Pac-Man.
Fortunately for the line, coach Lane Kiffin runs a familiar offensive system. The Trojans’ new head coach worked with the USC offense for six seasons (2001-2006) under Pete Carroll, including a stint as offensive coordinator in 2005 and 2006. Trojan fans can expect more of the same pro-style attack in 2010.
“The plays are mostly the same,” junior tackle Tyron Smith said. “It’s just the names that are different. We have to switch those up in our heads, but otherwise it’s not too bad.”
Despite some setbacks in the running game, coach Kiffin was excited about the line’s progress Tuesday. The unit has continued to improve, and even impress, considering its dwindling numbers.
“It was a pretty decent practice,” said Kiffin. “I was really impressed with the offensive line. We only had six offensive linemen today and they did well.”
Persistent injuries have limited the offensive and tested the Trojans depth in the trenches all spring. Senior center Kris O’Dowd sat out with a two-week-old knee injury, and tight ends David Ausberry, Jordan Cameron and Rhett Ellison are still questionable.
“We don’t have a lot of guys,” Kalil admitted. “There’s not a lot of depth right now, but the guys who are out here are all getting better.”
If injuries or inexperience aren’t the offensive line’s biggest problem, the defensive line might be. Barkley was tagged by Armstead and senior defensive tackle Christian Tupou four times in a first team offense vs. first team defense two-minute drill, and forced senior quarterback Mitch Mustain to throw an interception with seconds left.
“The defensive line looks really good,” said Kalil. “[Defensive line coach Ed Orgeron] got them straightened out; they’re going to be the best defensive line in the nation. They’re just making us better as an o-line.” Orgeron was USC’s defensive line coach from 1998 to 2004, before taking over as head coach at Mississippi for three years (2005-2007), where he went 10-25.
The Trojans took a page out of Oregon’s playbook during the two-minute drill and mixed in some Wildcat formation, as well. Freshman tailback Dillon Baxter, took a few snaps at quarterback.
“It’s something I’ve done at the last two places I coached (Oakland Raiders and the University of Tennessee), and so I wanted to try it here,” said Kiffin. “It’s just an experiment. Maybe we’ll bring it out again some time.” Kiffin may have to save his experiment for a passing situation. Baxter managed only a few yards on the ground but did toss a 40-yard bomb out of the formation that left Barkley shaking his head.