But as has been widely discussed here, the key to the success of this USC team in 2014 would seem to be its offensive line.
Where other position groups mostly make us wonder will there be an injury or two that takes them down, but they start from a pretty solid and talent-filled base, this O-line group seems to inspire a different sort of question -- or questions.
Are they athletic enough? Big and strong enough? Going to a new uptempo offense, is the experience there to make that transition in time, especially with a new center?
And what about their health? At least three of them are coming off surgery. Can they come back all the way and do so in time for Aug. 30?
Then there are the freshmen -- Toa Lobendahn, Viane Talamaivao and Damien Mama. After under-recruiting the position the previous few years, the O-line got its just due this past year. But what does that say if three of those who may have to play, even as backups, are true freshmen? Who does that?
One place there's no question about, it seems, and that's a change for the better is new offensive line coach Tim Drevno. He has just the right pedigree of NFL know how and college camaraderie to meet these guys where they are after being adrift the past couple of seasons. Although that wasn't necessarily the fault of Mike Summers, here for just last year before moving on to Florida.
But this is a different world for this USC offensive line. Which is where it gets a little tough to project the future for these guys when all you have is the recent past. Not so much for us. We're a bit more fortunate. We have this summer.
And that's a whole different story in terms of what they're doing, how they're doing it and who they're doing it with.
In previous seasons, there was nothing like this. No 90 plays a night in the summer. No running them with a crew of sideline signers. No full offensive line or even much 11 on 11 -- if ever.
And maybe more important than anything, no athletic defensive line to go up against in both position work and 11 on 11. It just didn't happen. Previous summers were mostly 7-on-7 and one-on-one until Steven Mitchell went down. Then no one-on-ones.
This is entirely different. The workouts are like mini-practices, only player-run. Serious players but having fun.
Unless, of course, they get beat in those line one-on-ones. Which doesn't happen all that much. One of the things we're seeing here is how seldom that happens on back-to-back plays when Leonard Williams might get Khaliel Rodgers once, or Scott Starr beat Chad Wheeler once or Claude Pelon or Delvon Simmons get by Mama or Lobendahn once but not twice.
We're also seeing guys like Wheeler and Max Tuerk and Zach Banner, even though he hasn't played all that much in games with his hip issues, step up and start instructing on a drop step or a slide or the punch out. The beauty of doing so much so fast is the ability for everyone to get in lots of reps -- with lots of chances to correct themselves.
The surprise in the 11 on 11 -- and the earlier walkthroughs -- is how well the offense seems to be picking this up on the fly. It just makes our point that you learn this stuff on the field, by doing it and remembering it with your muscle memory, more than by watching video and studying playbooks.
This O-line is a great deal farther along than any of us should have any right to expect. And we're including the freshmen. The wider splits help. With the rangy guys this team has up front, with a potential five-man group that's 6-9, 6-7, 6-6, 6-6 and 6-3, the wide splits give them -- and the quarterback/running back plenty of room to move and adjust.
Now they just have to be quick enough, with their hands and feet, to close defenders down. But what we like is that if a defender comes down hard inside from the edge, a couple of things will happen. The O-lineman can take him that way and quarterback Cody Kessler in the shotgun won't have his back turned and can see him coming and will be deep enough not to get touched. And if the read is right, and a defender comes down hard that way, Buck Allen and crew will go the other way -- through a big seam the defender has created.
The changes in the scheme, such as they are, seem geared to playing on these guys' strengths, not trying to hide their weaknesses.
Max Tuerk: The best all-around player here but needs to find a position and probably needs to maintain a 295-300-pound weight range. He says he will. Whether he'll ever become the comfortable snapper is the question. He's Kessler's roommate and that helps. And he's played every position up front, which also helps. But this needs to get decided by August. Tough kid. A warrior.
Chad Wheeler: He looks all grown up now but still not as developed up top to match his massive base. A couple of things we like: He's using his intelligence to figure out how to make that base work for him, not over committing and missing but staying under control and sliding those big legs. He's seen plenty of tricks from the primo edge guys now and should be ready to step up from what we've seen. Redshirt freshman seasons at left offensive tackle will do that.
Aundrey Walker: The third potential returning starter is becoming more of a regular attendee -- if not a summer participant yet. But it looks like he's in shape at 6-6-, 300 pounds and also looks a little more like a fourth-year guy who knows this is it. His last year, and his ankle surgery, kept him here. No question about that. He says his grades are fine and there's no doubt he'll be back and ready to go. And that's a big deal if he is and ready to play where needed. We know some are saying he won't make it back. And frankly, we don't know. Medically, he looks like he's made lots of progress with his ankle. Academically, it looks like he could be OK. Will it come down to a final course and a single summer grade the way it did for Curtis McNeal a couple of years back? We don't know. Until then, we'll just expect him to be back the way Steve Sarkisian has said he will be every time he's talked about him.
Zach Banner: We're almost starting to look at him as a regular by now. His spring return was an unexpected bonus. His hip surgery rehab maybe even more so. I know people wonder about how long it will take him -- at the far edge of how tall an effective O-lineman can be at 6-9 -- to get his hips under him and get that flex point right? We think that's no longer a question. He's there. One big help has been his basketball footwork that will, we've kidded him, allow him to run moving picks legally on every play. We think he has the chance to be the player USC fans hoped he would be out of high school. That he's such a vocal and natural leader helps here. He's very involved in everything that's going on.
Khaliel Rodgers: Trimmed down to 300 pounds and serious as can be with an attitude, he's another of the communicators that Summers had always hoped for. It's a year late but it does seem to be happening the way this team goes about its business -- as a team. That KR looks like he knows what he's doing and how to do it helps. His lack of game experience in high school always held him back, we thought. That no longer seems to be the case. He's a battler with good hands and good feet. Not the biggest guy in the world but the way they're running this offense, playing smart and tough and being in the right place at the right time is what matters most.
Toa Lobendahn: Mature beyond his freshman resume. Probably won't play above 285 pounds right now but then neither did Ryan Kalil until his senior season. We choose Ryan here because Toa's physical and mental makeup remind us of him, although this isn't to put the hat on Toa. Ryan Kalil might have been the most complete offensive lineman we've covered in our time here. Toa, playing two positions already at guard and center, is clearly an early overachiever. But for a true freshman to matter at this level on a team that hopes to be special, he'll have to do more than that. And the jury will be out for a while on that one.
Nathan Guertler: Haven't seen him this summer but the grad student on a full scholarship now has always been there when USC needed the 6-5, 280-pounder to fill in at both tackles or a blocking tight end. His experience is invaluable on a position group loaded with young guys. The kind of player every team needs. Played his tail off as a walkon and nothing changes now. Started out at first-team right tackle in the spring but saw Banner go by him the second week.
Damien Mama: The big guy has come on in the several summer sessions he's been here and made an impact -- and we say that advisedly. He's "impacted" both Delvon Simmons and Claude Pelon with his two-hand chest punch that stopped them in their tracks. He's more athletic than he looked last fall playing against high school kids in high school uniforms. He's bigger now but doesn't look as much overweight -- if that makes sense. How the wider splits and the uptempo offense impacts him, and his conditioning, will have to be determined. But we will say this, until we saw him matching up with the D-line guys, we didn't really have him penciled in as a possibility this fall. Now we do.
Viane Talamaivao: Make him a combo of Toa and Damien with his big, long arms and a wide, sudden but stocky profile. Looks and plays older than he is and that 330 pounds or so he seems comfortable carrying on a maybe not-quite 6-3 frame. Playing fast at Corona Centennial helps here for a guy also getting to go at guard and center. That's probably a good thing in the long run but how does that flexibility play out this fall? Getting as much work as he is this summer is a bonus incoming freshmen in past years haven't had. Having a couple of other guys in the same boat helps as well. But he's a freshman, you have to keep saying. Temper your enthusiasm. Freshman O-linemen just don't often – nor should they have to -- contribute.
Jordan Simmons: The rehabbing third-year Trojan is massive as ever. Maybe more so than the 6-4, 335 pounds he's listed at. And he has all the right moves from setup to first step to his balance with his hips under him just the way you'd like it. Now if only he can get on the field and get up to game speed and get an attitude that has him wanting to take people out, which he could do if he's healthy. Guess we'll see the next couple of months if he gets in shape and the medical people feel like he can go.
Giovani Di Poalo: All the time he's been here and now that he's the healthiest he's been, the slightly undersized senior contributes every day wherever he's needed, kind of like this year's Abe Markowitz. You can't have too many of these good-attitude guys who know what the deal is, who can fill in where they're asked and show the way to the young guys. Should get on the field some.
Jordan Austin, Nico Falah, Chris Brown: Among this trio of young, rangy guys who need to get stronger, Austin is farther along after getting so much work in the spring. Needs to just grow up a bit and mature. Falah has to get back to good health after sitting out spring and much of the summer so far although he's already used his redshirt so this year will count for him. Brown has the frame, just needs to get stronger the way almost every freshman must. He's getting lots of work this summer along with Austin. Probably be another year before we see the two true freshmen on the field. Have to wait on Falah.