Feature: Baker Anchors Talented USC Line

Aug. 23, 2007

By Dan Greenspan
Daily Trojan

August 23, 2007

Los Angeles, CA (CSTV U-WIRE) -- Same white jerseys, same cardinal helmets, same venue and the same team produced two completely different results.

On Dec. 2, 2006, with a berth in the BCS National Championship game on the line, the USC line was manhandled by a ferocious UCLA defense.

Less than a month later in the Rose Bowl, that same unit shut down an equally potent Michigan front seven.

'We felt we needed to redeem ourselves and show the world we weren't what the people said we were after the UCLA game,' guard Chilo Rachal said.

'We had a stumbling block, didn't play as good as we could play and we came back,' offensive line coach Pat Ruel said.

Of course, rushing for 55 and 48 yards, respectively, might indicate that they were closer to being one and the same.

'I don't think we were as physical as we would like to be,' offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian said. 'I think if we were more dominant up front, I'd say, 'Shoot, we were a great o-line.' But we weren't.'

Now the Trojans must replace All-American center Ryan Kalil and senior tackle Kyle Williams, open up better rushing lanes and keep quarterback John David Booty upright and his passes from getting batted down.

Fortunately, they have a tremendous cornerstone in senior left tackle Sam Baker.

A likely top 10 pick if he had declared for April's NFL Draft, Baker will try to join linebacker Richard 'Batman' Wood and quarterback Matt Leinart as three time All-American selections.

'He gives us a lot of stability in there,' Ruel said.

Baker, however, has missed time during fall camp because of a cracked rib. He is expected to be ready for the season opener against Idaho, but sophomores Charles Brown and Thomas Herring have filled in during his absence.

'The great thing when you lose (offensive tackle Drew) Radovich (to a back injury) or don't have Sam out here, you find out what other guys can do,' Ruel said. 'They go out and get tested, they respond, they compete and show us what they are capable of.

'We're getting tested. We got some pretty good defensive ends (to go against).'

Brown is likely to start against the Vandals as Radovich gets back into game shape.

At the guard positions, Jeff Byers is finally healthy after a series of injuries that slowed his promising career, while Rachal could take a major step forward after starting all but one game last season.

'I expect him to be a first team All-Pac-10 guy and be up for some All-American honors,' Ruel said of Rachal. 'He's got all the tools. If I can just get him to do some of the little technique stuff better, he'll be fine.'

Kalil, a second-round selection of the Carolina Panthers and winner of the Morris Award as the top offensive lineman in the Pac-10, will have his sizable shoes filled by senior Matt Spanos.

Spanos missed all of last season as an academic casualty but has quickly developed a bond with Booty.

'The rapport is good,' Ruel said. 'They are getting better. I don't know if Matt can rise up to Ryan's status, but I know talentwise he is very similar. '

One new development for Spanos is the addition of the shotgun to USC's offense. Booty played primarily out of the shotgun at Evangel Christian High and the formation is an attempt to avoid having passes knocked down.

The nation's top-rated high school center, Kristofer O'Dowd from Tucson, Ariz., senior Alatini Malu, sophomore Nick Howell and redshirt freshmen Butch Lewis and Zack Herberer will provide depth.

True freshman Martin Coleman will redshirt as he recovers from a broken leg sustained last season.

The group will be asked to handle the crowd noise from the nation's toughest road schedule, including trips to Nebraska, Notre Dame and Cal.

USC must also boost its production after averaging only 4 yards per rushing attempt and surrendering 17 sacks. The Trojans were also suspect in short yardage, which was especially evident against the Bruins.

'When you can physically impose yourself on an opponent, that takes a toll,' Sarkisian said. 'It may not be in the first quarter or second quarter, but over the long haul you wear opponents out, and I don't think we were able to do that last year.'

(C) 2007 Daily Trojan via CSTV U-WIRE

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