LOS ANGELES -- For the first time in several years, the Trojans will be approaching a spring ball session with the offensive line being fairly well intact. Sure, there is a vacancy to fill at left tackle, but there are four other starters returning and a potential fifth starter who saw action last season as a true freshman, so the overall experience is good.
Leading the way for this offensive line group will be the senior in the middle, Khaled Holmes -- a three-year starter for the Trojans who is entering his second season at center. Holmes (6-foot-4, 310 pounds) began his USC career as a guard and started at right guard in 2010 before moving to center last season.
The transition to center was delayed last spring when Holmes was forced to miss drills because of a shoulder/neck injury. He returned in time to take part in fall camp, but things got off to a rocky start in the opener against Minnesota, during which Holmes launched a snap over the head of quarterback Matt Barkley at a critical point in the game.
"It was the first game at center when that happened," Holmes said. "I had been playing pretty well to that point, too. I took it as a learning experience. If you're going to have something like that happen, have it happen in the first game.
"Overall I was somewhat happy with how things went at center during the year. The biggest adjustment was just getting used to snapping and stepping. I've got a lot to work on, but given the limited time I had to work at it before the season started I thought it went pretty well."
It went well enough that the offensive line -- which was thought to be an area of concern heading into the season -- proved to be a solid and dependable unit. Once the starting situation was settled at left guard, the line seemed to jell and it led the way for the offense to explode.
The Trojans ended up allowing the fewest sacks in the nation, eight. They had a 1,000-yard rusher, two 1,000-yard receivers and a quarterback who set numerous USC school records. Those kind of stats don't happen without some pretty solid work being done up front.
"You could really tell things started to come together for us when the interior group got set," Holmes said. "I was really proud of how John [Martinez] and Marcus [Martin] stepped up. I also think Coach [James] Cregg has done a great job of keeping us together and teaching fundamentals. I'm looking for things to be even better for the line this year."
That process starts this week, as the Trojans begin spring ball practices. And the overall health and depth of the line is strong heading in. In addition to the intact return of the interior (Holmes at center, Martinez at RG and Martin at LG), the Trojans will also look at putting Kevin Graf -- the 2011 starter at right tackle -- on the left side to take over for Matt Kalil. Aundrey Walker, who has dropped major weight in an effort to capitalize on the opportunity for a starting spot, will get the first look at right tackle but could also see some practice time on the left side.
It's just one of the many loaded position groups for USC for next season, which has led many in the media to project the Trojans as one of the early favorites for the 2012 national title. Considering this is a team that has been forced to sit on the sidelines for the past two bowl seasons, Holmes says they are not getting caught up in the hype.
"It's been a tough couple years and we learned not to take anything for granted," he said. "The season is a long ways from now but I don't see us looking past anybody. We had a taste of success at the end of last year and that just kind of added to the fire and hunger in our bellies."
Holmes is also one of three USC seniors who is ranked by ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. as the top returning player at his position in the country. Barkley and safety T.J. McDonald are the others. The evaluation of Holmes as an NFL center prospect indicates he has good size, athleticism and versatility, as, in addition to playing guard and center at USC, he played tackle in high school.
"It's nice to hear those things about the draft every once in a while but you just take it with a grain of salt and go back to work," Holmes said.
"I don't think anyone could have done a better job than Matt of leading us through the dark times," Holmes said. "He's really the shining example of our team and how we've fought through seemingly unprecedented punishment to, hopefully, come out on top."
One area in which Barkley isn't coming out on top right now is the race for the top GPA on the team. He is No. 2, behind Holmes.
"I'm staying in front on that one," Holmes said with a laugh. "He's got some catching up to do, but if they throw in my graduate school GPA then he has no chance."
Holmes graduated last fall with a double major in classics and communications and will look to complete his master's degree this fall in social marketing, social media and digital technology.
USC head coach Lane Kiffin said he notices likenesses between his quarterback and center in the way they approach being a student-athlete.
"I think they are very similar guys," Kiffin told ESPN.com's Kevin Gemmell. "Both are very smart, very mature. They came from the same high school and are very similar in what they do. They are talented and athletic but they play above their athleticism because of their football IQ."
Garry Paskwietz is the publisher of WeAreSC.com and has covered the Trojans since 1997. He can be reached at email@example.com.