- Ted Miller, ESPN Staff Writer
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The biggest reason many view USC as a Pac-12 and national title contender is quarterback Cody Kessler, a three-year starter and Heisman trophy candidate. Kessler is surrounded by good talent at receiver. Running back? It's a question.
So obviously the Trojans are going to throw the rock all over this place this fall -- go all "Air Raid" out of the shotgun in their up-tempo offense.
"We are a run-first team," coach Steve Sarkisian said. "And I know sometimes everybody thinks USC and Cody and 39 [passing] touchdowns and all this stuff, but we're going to run the football. I've been a head coach for six years now. I've had a thousand-yard rusher every year. We're going to run the football."
The reason for this? USC might have the best offensive line in the Pac-12.
Last year, starting three true freshmen on his offensive line scared -- his word choice -- Sarkisian. This year, it's opposing defenses who might approach that line with trepidation.
USC not only welcomes back all five starters from 2014, it welcomes back an experienced two deep. Its 99 combined O-line starts rank ninth in the nation, according to Phil Steele, with senior All-American and Remington Award candidate Max Tuerk, first-team All-Pac-12 a year ago, leading the charge at center. His flanks will be well-stocked with future NFL draft choices.
The biggest issue for the Trojans O-line this preseason? Whether junior offensive tackle Chad Wheeler, a two-year starter who might have been the Trojans best blocker over the first half of the 2014 season, regains his starting job after a knee injury ended his season with five games remaining. Sarkisian said Wheeler will be full go to start fall camp Aug. 8.
Now, the Trojans offensive line didn't dominate a year ago, either in run or pass blocking. But youth and a lack of continuity were significant challenges. Those shouldn't be an issue this fall. Tackle Toa Lobendahn and guard Viane Talamaivao both earned freshman All-American honors last year, while massive right tackle Zach Banner and guard Damien Mama look like potential all-conference candidates. Mama and Lobendahn became just the second pair of USC first-year freshmen in the post-World War II era to start on the offensive line.
Sarkisian said the Trojans' O-line will be, "As good as it's been here in a while," clearly inviting reporters to harken back to the Pete Carroll days when the USC line typically ranked among the nation's best. He noted the move of capable guard Jordan Simmons to the defensive line, which is less certain, as an exhibit for his overall confidence in the unit.
"I feel great about it," Sarkisian said of his line. "I love Max Tuerk as our center. I think he's the best center in the country. Toa Lobendahn, Damien Mama, all these guys are fantastic players and that's what shapes you as a program, ultimately. You have to be able to run the football, protect the quarterback, and I think we can do that."
Of course, USC is going to throw the ball. Kessler might be the most accurate passer in the Pac-12. He ranked fourth in the nation in pass efficiency in 2014. Sarkisian believes the physicality of the Trojans' running game will, in fact, make it easier to throw the ball. And not just a few hitches and short outs, nibbling on the corners in a controlled fashion.
"Because of our dedication and our commitment to running the ball, we're able to create some things in the passing game to create big plays," he said. "I think that's been something that USC has been a trademark for. We're going to run it, but yet we've got talented wide receivers. We've got a really good quarterback that when we utilize the play-action pass or we utilize your commitment to stopping the run, we can throw the ball down the field and create big plays."
Sarkisian concluded, "We are not a dink-and-dunk offense. That's not who we are, and we'll never be that way. We're going to throw the ball down the field."
Though only after delivering several body blows in the running game.
6hCraig Haubert and Tom Luginbill
6hCraig Haubert and Tom Luginbill