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USC's Fab Five

Offensive line gets it all together to give Trojans a formidable attack

January 02, 2006|Gary Klein | Times Staff Writer

As USC moved through its schedule on a quest for a third consecutive national title, the Trojans' offensive line effectively blocked everything but praise.

Postgame compliments from opposing coaches ranged from the basic -- "very good," -- to the breathless -- "arguably one of best offensive lines, not just in the nation, but in the history of NCAA football."

Hold the hyperbole, Trojan linemen say, at least for a few more days.

"How we play against Texas is going to determine how people are going to remember us," junior right tackle Winston Justice said.

When top-ranked USC plays second-ranked Texas on Wednesday in the Rose Bowl, Trojan linemen intend to finish with a flourish a run of dominating performances.

If LenDale White is the thunder and Reggie Bush the lightning in the Trojans' high-voltage backfield, the line has been the storm front that made their electric play possible.

"There's no debate: they're the best in the country," said Bush, the Heisman Trophy winner.

Justice, junior right guard Fred Matua, junior center Ryan Kalil, senior left guard Taitusi Lutui and sophomore left tackle Sam Baker helped the Trojans average 264 rushing yards a game.

The quintet also kept quarterback Matt Leinart out of harm's way, giving up only 14 sacks as the 2004 Heisman winner directed an offense that averaged a nation-leading 580 yards a game.

"They understood the meaning of playing together and doing things right together," offensive line coach Pat Ruel said. "They have to play in sync and they've done that. They've done that a lot."

The 6-foot-6, 360-pound Lutui was voted onto several All-American teams. Kalil, 6-3 and 285, and Baker, 6-5 and 305, were first-team All-Pacific 10 Conference. Justice, 6-6 and 300, is regarded a potential first-round NFL draft pick, and Matua, 6-2 and 305, also is considered a top pro prospect.

When Coach Pete Carroll was hired by USC five years ago, the offensive line was among the program's glaring weaknesses. Now, as it was during the glory days of the 1970s, it is one of its greatest strengths.

"It's not a quick-fix area," Carroll said of the line. "It takes a while because it's system and continuity and they just need reps and time."

In 2001, Carroll's first season at USC, the Trojans ranked last in the conference in rushing, averaging only 88 yards a game.

Justice and Matua arrived the next season, Justice moving into the starting lineup by the second game and Matua redshirting. The Trojans averaged 142 rushing yards and won the Orange Bowl to finish 11-2.

In 2003, Kalil and Baker came in with a recruiting class that also included Bush and White. Matua split time with junior college transfer John Drake and Kalil backed up senior Norm Katnik while Baker redshirted. USC averaged 156 rushing yards and won the Rose Bowl and the Associated Press national title.

By last season, Kalil, Matua and Baker were starters. With Justice serving a two-semester suspension for flashing a replica firearm during an off-campus incident, Lutui came in from a Utah junior college and started every game at right tackle. The Trojans averaged 177 rushing yards and routed Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl to win another national title.

Justice won back his position when he returned last spring, allowing coaches to move a slimmer Lutui to left guard this season.

"That was humbling, changing positions," Lutui said. "But all you want to do is be a part of something where you can contribute. I guess it worked out pretty well not just for me, but for the team."

Players credit strength coach Chris Carlisle, former offensive line coach Tim Davis and Ruel for helping them develop into an elite unit.

While Carlisle and his conditioning staff pushed them in the weight room, Davis spent three seasons challenging them, often at extreme decibels, in the meeting room and on the field.

"He was feisty and in your face," Matua said. "Sometimes you need that."

When Davis joined the Miami Dolphins' staff last February, Carroll wasted no time courting Ruel, a veteran of the college and pro ranks who worked for the New York Giants in 2004.

"He took a good line and made them one of the best," Carroll said of Ruel.

The transition was not as easy as it might have appeared.

Ruel was concerned about how quickly the linemen would take to his style. Baker acknowledged that he was initially apprehensive about playing for a new position coach.

"It always takes some time to kind of sit back and just think, 'Hey, this might be a change for the better,' " Baker said.

Ruel won over the group with an approach that focused on technique and togetherness.

"When you play on the line, it's a different kind of position because you have five guys playing as one," Kalil said. "In that sense, we're kind of a team within a team."

Ruel rates the Trojans' line among the best he has worked with in 32 years of coaching.

How it ranks in school and college football history will be determined Wednesday night

"I always reserve judgment," Ruel said. "Let us play our final game."

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