Feature: Everyone Plays Like a Starter at USC

Oct. 3, 2007

By Andrew Fischer
Daily Trojan

October 3, 2007

Los Angeles, CA (CSTV U-WIRE) -- Alatini Malu has made a career of being a backup at USC.

You've probably never heard of Malu, but you expect him not to mess up.

When a starter goes down, as offensive guard Chilo Rachal did in the first quarter against Washington Saturday night, you expect his replacement not to miss a beat in an offense built on precise timing. You expect the quality of the product on the field not to change one bit.

The fifth-year senior and former junior college transfer from Torrance has only started one game in his four years as a Trojan - filling in, coincidentally, for an injured Rachal last season against the Huskies - but he is expected to play like he lives on the first team.

If USC's run over the last few years has done anything, it's created an ideal image of perfection. An image so firmly cemented in the minds of fans that, if deviated from in the slightest, sends the Trojan faithful into a tizzy.

And while the success has spoiled fans to an extent, these expectations have become reasonable.

It's one thing coaches, players and fans alike can probably agree on.

'Yeah pretty much,' said Desmond Reed, another fifth-year senior of the ability for anyone on the roster to fill in. 'When you talk about 'SC, that's just the way it has been in the past and the way it will be in the future.'

The Trojans' vaunted depth chart gives them the ability to seamlessly fill a void created by one player with any other name on the depth chart.

With two starting offensive lineman injured on the same play Saturday, the expectations were most definitely put to the test.

'[Offensive line coach Pat Ruel] likes to make the O-line flexible,' said senior center Matt Spanos, who filled in for Kris O'Dowd when the freshman suffered a dislocated kneecap. 'Obviously we weren't expecting Kris to go down, but we were prepared to throw someone in there.'

OK, maybe that transition isn't always flawless, as the offensive line demonstrated with a fumbled snap and its fair share of holding penalties and false starts.

But few, if any, teams in the country could lose two starters on the interior offensive line in a hostile environment where ostensibly nothing else was going right, and come out with just one sack surrendered while opening up holes for 224 yards of rushing, much less a win.

'[The coaches] have expectations out of all of us to perform our best, but filling those expectations is on us,' Spanos said.

So it's fair for spectators to hold you to that high standard?

'Yeah, definitely,' Spanos responded.

The offensive line is hardly unique in having the ability to plug in someone from the sideline without a noticeable drop in performance - it is an across-the-board characteristic of the program.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the handling of the running backs. Slotting tailbacks into the game as role players to capitalize on individual strengths and exploit matchups has engineered a potent ground game, while keeping players fresh.

'Everyone wants to play,' Reed said. 'That's why when you switch running backs and wide receivers, you don't see much change.

'We don't feel pressure. Here at 'SC they recruit the best players. When a guy goes down we should have another guy step up.'

With C.J. Gable out with a lingering groin injury, Reed filled in effectively as the speed back. Reed, who entered the weekend without a reception on the season, was integral in the Trojans leaving the Northwest with a victory.

His effort - four receptions for 46 yards - provided senior quarterback John David Booty a vital safety valve, converting two crucial first downs that kept drives alive late in the game.

Indeed, USC's depth chart has been viewed as gluttonous at times - a wasteful allocation of talent and potential. But it is the reason a down year for Pete Carroll's team is a Pac-10 Championship and a Rose Bowl victory. It is the reason USC fans do not have to endure a horrific rebulding year like their counterparts in South Bend and do not have to expect one next year when this crop of seniors and underclassmen part ways.

It is because of those players on the sideline who step up when their number is called that the Trojans are moving on, slowly and not always with style, with New Orleans still firmly in their crosshairs.

(C) 2007 Daily Trojan via CSTV U-WIRE

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