Recalibrating expectations

Thanks to inspired play by newcomers like Leonard Williams, the USC defensive line has been a pleasant surprise. Debby Wong/US Presswire

LOS ANGELES -- Football is a game that is won in the trenches, so the old saying goes.

As the Trojans prepared for the 2012 season, there was a good feeling about their offensive line thanks to four returning starters, but there was clearly concern about the inexperience along the defensive front. The O-line was expected to be the cornerstone of a dynamic attack with skill players across the board, while the D-line was expected to play catch-up as the back seven led the way in the early going.

Through the first four games of the season, however, it's safe to say that the script has definitely been flipped.

The offensive line has been good at times but also inconsistent, primarily due to an ankle injury to senior center Khaled Holmes -- the rock in the middle of the line. There was no doubt that Holmes was the most vital member of the unit, but the Trojans learned just how valuable he was in the Stanford game, when his replacement, redshirt freshman Cyrus Hobbi, struggled with the mental and physical challenge of facing the Cardinal. That uncertainty at the center spot impacted the rest of the line, and the result was a subpar performance for the entire offense in the upset loss.

In hindsight, it's amazing to think how important an injury to reserve Abe Markowitz was that week. Markowitz -- a fifth-year senior -- had worked as a versatile reserve at both guard and center but was unavailable for the game. After Markowitz played well the next week against California, USC coach Lane Kiffin said he couldn't help but wonder what would have happened if Markowitz had been available for the Stanford game.

The Trojans get ready to face a Utah team on Thursday night that also features a strong defensive front, led by a big-time defensive tackle in Star Lotulelei. Will Holmes be ready? Who will be at left guard after Marcus Martin missed the Cal game with an injury? Has Aundrey Walker officially held off Max Tuerk at left tackle? There are still a lot of questions about the O-line, even after a strong effort running the ball against Cal, and how the line handles the Utah front will go a long way toward determining the outcome of the game.

While the USC offensive line has been up and down, the defensive line has been primarily up. There was genuine concern in fall camp with Devon Kennard out due to surgery and Wes Horton unavailable due to injury, as those two seniors were expected to be bookend leaders for the line. Instead, sophomore George Uko had to step up at defensive tackle as a veteran -- which he has -- and the Trojans hoped other inexperienced players would rise up when given their opportunity.

Nobody had stepped up out of the blue more than Morgan Breslin. The junior college transfer was expected to contribute as a pass rusher, but nobody expected 5.5 sacks and 9.5 tackles for loss in four games. His non-stop motor has helped make him the biggest surprise newcomer around USC in a long time.

The Trojans also appear to have found a future gem in true freshman Leonard Williams. He's big, and he plays that way. It takes a rare talent to come in right away and hold his own in the middle of the D-line, but Williams has done it. When you add in flashes of brilliance from others such as J.R. Tavai, Christian Heyward and Kevin Greene, it means a lot of guys are getting it done on the line. And that's not even really counting Horton, who is only just getting back to his usual high standard of play after returning to the lineup a few weeks ago.

Needless to say, the coaches are very pleased with the development of the defensive line so far, and it's been a critical factor in the defense's success so far. The Utah O-line is not a strong one, so you can expect to see more pressure in this game from the Trojans.