LOS ANGELES – In the locker room after USC's 38-28 win at Utah last week, senior center Khaled Holmes cleared his throat and spoke up before coach Lane Kiffin even had a chance to address the team. Later, USC posted the video, crackling with postgame emotion, on its official Web site.
“Hey, I want to apologize personally and individually for putting us in a hole like that in a hostile environment,” Holmes said. “I want to thank you guys for having my back and never faltering in your confidence in me.”
One of his teammates then yells, “You already know it!”
Kiffin jumps in and says, “I think that’s a great example right there of a real man.”
USC’s season, which opened with so much hope, is only five games old, its meaningfulness teetering already in early October. Why is a player who can’t touch the ball after he snaps it at the center of this team’s story arc?
It seems like the question hanging over an entire fan base is: How healthy is he?
USC doesn't provide information on injuries but what we do know is that the Trojans' offense isn’t very effective when Holmes isn’t playing and it’s pretty anemic when he’s not playing at a high level.
Holmes missed the Stanford game with an injury to his right leg and the Trojans got shut out over the game’s final 34 minutes, their national title hopes perhaps snuffed out with a 21-14 loss. The sweat was still damp on the players’ uniforms when receiver Robert Woods talked about how much they missed Holmes, the leader of their front.
Holmes returned to face Cal, but still looked rusty against Utah, fumbling snaps in the Trojans’ first two possessions and staking the Utes to a 14-0 lead in a game in which a loss would have brought the roof in on USC's season. Thus, the public mea culpa.
But Holmes' actions last Saturday spoke louder than his words. He got his cadences figured out and started to come up with some ways to slow down Utah’s road-grader of a defensive tackle, Star Lotulelei. His quarterback, Matt Barkley, was able to settle in and went on to have one of the most accurate performances of his college career (potentially salvaging his Heisman Trophy hopes) and USC survived a scary moment on the road.
Holmes is a good player -- who knows, maybe the top center in the country -- but the centrality of one offensive lineman’s health underlines some things we missed back in the summer, when it seemed like everyone in America was ready to anoint USC the best team in the nation.
It's great that the Trojans are free to play in a bowl again, but the scholarship limits imposed on them by NCAA sanctions continue to make this roster as thin as an Old West town on a film set. When Holmes went down, next in line was a former walk-on, Abe Markowitz. When Markowitz, too, got hurt, a freshman who had never played a snap, Cyrus Hobbi, got thrown into the fire and Stanford made sure to keep up heat on the kid for four quarters.
Barkley and Holmes have been friends since they were shouldering superhero backpacks and watching cartoons together in elementary school back in Orange County. They played together all through high school at Mater Dei, and while Holmes’ college career bloomed later than Barkley’s he is now every bit as important to the success of USC's offense as his old friend.
“They’ve played together so long at a high level,” Kiffin said, admitting Holmes’ absence against Stanford was “a huge deal.”
After the Utah game, Barkley was quoted as saying he couldn’t be mad at his best friend.
“I wasn’t pointing any fingers or bad mouthing him, because I knew that mistakes happen and all that kind of stuff,” Barkley said after Tuesday’s practice. “I’m proud of him in how he bounced back, though.”
We’ll have a better measure of how Holmes bounces back, and of how dependent USC continues to be on him, in the coming weeks, as the team's schedule builds to a crescendo with an Oregon-Notre Dame-UCLA flourish at the end.