Trojans Reloaded

Oct. 15, 2004

By Gabe Alvarez, Sports Information Student Assistant

In college football, players come and players go.

There is a constant turnover of student-athletes as they enter the university and eventually graduate. Every year, teams analyze the positions that are in need of reloading and begin to bring along and plug in a new starter wherever necessary, just like a car dealer restocks his front line.

During his first three years as USC head coach, Pete Carroll didn't have to concern himself with a great deal of reloading on the offensive line --but this year is another story. The Trojans began this year's spring workouts with only one lineman with starting experience.

With senior John Drake still nursing an injured ankle, sophomore Fred Matua was that sole starter ready to do battle in the spring. That meant that just about every spot was open for competition on the line.Since Coach Carroll's first year as USC's head coach, the line had been anchored by the same three players -- Norm Katnik at center, Lenny Vandermade at guard, and Jacob Rogers at tackle. The three were the cornerstone of USC's return to glory. Their emergence led to Troy's resurgence.

The progress of the offensive line in the past three years has been remarkable. They paved the way for 1,052 rushing yards in 2001 but improved to 2,027 yards in 2003. Not only did the total yardage increase but also the quality of carry improved dramatically every year. USC's sacks allowed also dropped from 36 in 2001 to 15 in 2003.

The Trojan running game averaged 2.6 yards a carry in 2001 but through the hard work of the offensive line they were able to add another yard to that average in 2002, making it 3.6.

Trojans offensive line coach Tim Davis has always had a goal of averaging 4.0 yards a carry and the line reached that goal -- and then some -- this past season, averaging an excellent 4.5 yards a carry. The main three and key reserves like Eric Torres were the key to back-to-back Pac-10 titles, a 2003 Orange Bowl victory, a 2004 Rose Bowl victory, a Heisman trophy winner and a national championship. But not all their accomplishments are measured in trophies and statistics.

The leadership that the offensive line provided the young Trojans was vital to the continued growth and betterment of the USC program. They showed the younger lineman what it takes to succeed, the hard work and the dedication. They had built a great deal of unity and cohesion to the point where they knew each other's thoughts on the field without saying a word.

'Those guys knew the game,' Davis said. 'They knew all the situations. They knew each other's responsibilities and always knew what the other was thinking.'

USC hadn't needed a major overhaul with starters on the line in a long time. But with the graduation of Rogers, Katnik and Vandermade and the suspension of Winston Justice, the coaches opened up all the positions on the line to competition. Carroll and his staff are firm believers in competition and it's one of the key ingredients to their success. It's something they stress greatly every day in practice.

At the end of fall camp, when everyone was healthy and had arrived on campus, two experienced lineman, Matua and Drake, emerged at the guard positions. Throughout the season thus far, their roles have been very important to the team. They have tried to take on the leadership roles left behind by the graduated trio.

'We've tried to pick up some of the special things each guy brought to the field. Norm's intelligence, Lenny's toughness and Rogers' communication skills are all things we want to keep up with this line.' Matua said.

Also, three highly talented -- yet unproven -- linemen (freshman tackle Sam Baker, sophomore center Ryan Kalil and junior transfer Taitusi 'Deuce' Lutui at tackle) stepped to the forefront. With the quantity of youth represented, the offensive line has a chance to build that special chemistry that the line before it shared.

'The longer they play together, the better we'll be,' David said. 'That's the key. They get up together at 6 a.m. to workout. They compete together against the top defense in the country every day in practice, and they keep learning more and more as they play together more.'

The reserves this year won't be to far behind as true freshman Jeff Byers, redshirt freshman Drew Radovich, sophomore Kyle Williams, junior Alatini Malu and senior Travis Watkins all look to do their part and relieve the starters of their duties throughout the game.

This line has already shown flashes of brilliance. Against Colorado State, the offensive line opened enough holes for 323 rushing yards. Also against BYU, the line helped Reggie Bush and LenDale White both pass the century mark in rushing yards in the game -- the first time that had occurred since Chad Morton and LaVale Woods did it in 1996 against Oregon State.

'Coach Davis puts the top five on the field and we mold into a good group,' Matua said.

The likes of Bush and White and quarterback Matt Leinart are enjoying the fruits of the line's progress. So is everyone else in Cardinal and Gold.

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