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They Want to Rush USC's Turnaround

College football: Offensive linemen seek to return Trojans to glory days of Tailback U.

September 01, 2002|GARY KLEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They spent hours in the weight room but acknowledge that strength alone cannot lift a veil of uncertainty.

They study technique in the classroom and hone it on the practice field, but understand that performance is the only way to block criticism.

USC's offensive linemen emphatically believe that the Trojans' success this season falls squarely on their experienced but largely unproven shoulders.

Last season, most of the same players were party to a rushing average of 87.7 yards, the lowest in the Pacific 10 Conference and 109th among 115 teams nationally. The Trojans' 1,052 yards rushing were the fewest since 1948, the first year school records were kept. Quarterback Carson Palmer was sacked 36 times.

USC finished 6-6 under first-year Coach Pete Carroll and ended the season with an embarrassing 10-6 loss to Utah in the Las Vegas Bowl, a game in which the Trojans had only one yard rushing.

"We didn't do our job," senior Zach Wilson said of the line's play. "We all know we messed up bad."

To a man, the returning players accept responsibility. They downplay injuries that required fullback Sunny Byrd to start at tailback for the last six games and made Sultan McCullough, who sat out half the season, the leading rusher with only 410 yards.

"The criticism was deserved," said junior Norm Katnik, who played all three line positions last season. "USC used to be Student Body Right and Student Body Left. Last year it was 87 yards a game and last in the Pac-10.

"We're definitely going to improve this year to get that reputation back."

From the mid-1960s to the early '80s, USC earned its moniker as Tailback U with ballcarriers such as Heisman Trophy winners Mike Garrett, O.J. Simpson, Charles White and Marcus Allen and All-Americans Anthony Davis and Ricky Bell. But the reputation was built on a foundation of talented offensive linemen.

Ron Yary, Pete Adams, Marvin Powell, Pat Howell, Brad Budde, Keith Van Horne, Roy Foster, Bruce Matthews and Tony Boselli are only some of the All-Americans who cleared the way for Trojan runners.

USC, however, has not produced an All-American offensive lineman since Boselli in 1994, a streak likely to extend another year.

When USC plays Auburn in its opener Monday at the Coliseum, returning starters will fill all but one position on an offensive line that averages 6 feet 4 inches, 293 pounds.

Katnik, 6-4, 280, will start at center, as two-year starter Lenny Vandermade (6-3, 275) moves to left guard. Juniors Jacob Rogers (6-6, 305) and Eric Torres (6-5, 300) will play left and right tackle, respectively.

Wilson (6-5, 300) suffered a foot strain on the first day of training camp and will miss the opener, so Fred Matua (6-3, 305), from Wilmington Banning High, is expected to start at right guard. If he is not sidelined by a bruised right knee, Matua will become the first freshman to start an opener on the offensive line since Travis Claridge in 1996, and he gives the unit a shot of aggressiveness.

"There are a whole bunch of ingredients in this line," Matua said. "It's just like your mom's cooking. It doesn't taste good if you don't have any sugar. I bring the sugar and it's going to start cooking."

When Wilson returns, he will work at guard and tackle. Senior Derek Graf (6-4, 280) has practiced at center and guard. Senior tackle Phillip Eaves (6-7, 310) and sophomore guard Travis Watkins (6-3, 300) are in the mix, along with freshman tackles Winston Justice (6-6, 305) and Kyle Williams (6-6, 280), center-guard Chris Doyle (6-1, 285) and guard Kurt Katnik (6-4, 255).

While returning players bulked up in the weight room during the off-season, Carroll moved to improve their play by hiring fiery Tim Davis as an additional offensive line coach. Davis, who worked the previous five seasons at Wisconsin, is responsible for guards and centers. Keith Uperesa, in his second season with the Trojans, handles tackles and tight ends.

"With two guys, the players can get better coaching," said Norm Chow, USC's offensive coordinator. "There are four eyes on them instead of two."

The difference is noticeable to linemen on both sides of the line of scrimmage.

"We're leaps and bounds ahead of where we were in any of the years I've been here," said Rogers, who arrived at USC in 1999. "We still have plenty of gains to make before the first game, but we're on the right path."

Defensive tackle Shaun Cody also senses positive change.

"Last year, it seemed like the O-line was kind of blah," Cody said. "This year, they have pep, some attitude."

Depth at running back should also aid the offensive line. McCullough, who rushed for 1,163 yards in 2000, is sound. Justin Fargas, a transfer from Michigan, is eligible after redshirting last season. And Malaefou MacKenzie returns after the NCAA granted him a sixth year of eligibility. Sophomore Darryl Poston and freshman Hershel Dennis also will play.

"We're much more precise about things we're trying to do with the run game, and I think we've adapted some things in pass protection that will make a difference," Carroll said. "If those two areas are better, it gives us a heck of chance to see how good we can be. Without that, it's going to be a struggle."

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