USC’s offensive line hopes to give Trojans more weapons
Chad Wheeler played only a few years of high school football, was a redshirt last season at USC and sat out most of spring practice because of a knee injury.
Now, in a major surprise of training camp, a player who has never played a down in college is on track to start at left tackle for the Trojans in their Aug. 29 opener at Hawaii.
Wheeler’s emergence at the line’s most high-profile position is one of several changes for a unit that must protect an inexperienced quarterback and help USC resurrect its running game.
Center Marcus Martin is confident the reshuffled line can lead the way.
“We’re going to come out,” he said, “and we’re going to road-grade.”
Steamrolling opponents at the line of scrimmage might be the goal, but simply keeping the running lanes open would probably suffice.
Coach Lane Kiffin spent much of the off-season telling anyone who would listen that USC must improve its rushing attack. Kiffin hired offensive line coach Mike Summers from Kentucky to replace James Cregg as the primary offensive line coach. Cregg now assists Summers.
Their charge is to reverse a downward trend.
In 2010, the Trojans averaged 189.3 yards rushing, which ranked third in the Pacific 10 Conference and 25th among 120 major-college teams.
In 2011, with receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee catching passes, the Trojans’ rushing average dipped to 162.6 yards a game, which ranked fourth in the conference and 51st nationally. Last season, the Trojans averaged 150.6 yards rushing, seventh in the Pac-12 Conference and 71st nationally.
The dynamic Lee is once again expected to be the focal point of the offense — but it will be tougher for opponents to defend against him if the line clears the way for USC’s tailback corps.
Four starting linemen from last season are back, though three probably will play different positions and one might be a reserve.
Kevin Graf, a 6-foot-6, 295-pound fifth-year senior, starts at right tackle for a third consecutive season.
Graf quietly kept working after Kiffin listed Wheeler as a co-starter at right tackle on the end-of-spring depth chart. Now he is an elder for an offensive line that Kiffin has called out to perform better.
“We take it personally — it’s a challenge toward us,” Graf said. “We have all these great running backs and want to put them to use…. We need to be better at running the ball.”
Junior Aundrey Walker, last season’s starting left tackle, is competing with two-year starter John Martinez at right guard.
The 6-6, 300-pound Walker, who came to USC from Cleveland Glenville High in Ohio, was inconsistent last season at tackle and was sidelined for nearly a week in training camp because of concussion symptoms. His absence opened the door for Wheeler to take his spot — and spurred Walker’s move to guard.
Martin, 6-3 and 310 pounds, started 20 games at left guard before switching to center during spring practice. The junior replaces Khaled Holmes, who now plays for the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts.
“Centers don’t get a lot of love,” Martin said, laughing, “but you have fun playing center. It’s a great opportunity for me.”
Sophomore Max Tuerk, 6-6 and 285 pounds, started five games at left tackle and one at left guard as a freshman in 2012. He got a look at center during spring practice but has apparently found a home at guard.
Tuerk will be flanked by the 6-7 Wheeler, who weighed 227 pounds when he arrived at USC from Santa Monica High in spring 2012.
Wheeler, now 290 pounds, has said repeatedly that improving his technique and getting better are his main goals. He admires former Trojans left tackle Matt Kalil — an All-American selected by the Minnesota Vikings with the fourth overall pick in the 2012 NFL draft — and aspires to eventually develop similar skills.
“One of the best left tackles I’ve ever seen play,” Wheeler said. “So if I can be anything like him, that would be a good thing. A great thing.”
Sixth-year senior Abe Markowitz is experienced at several positions. Redshirt freshmen Zach Banner and Jordan Simmons, third-year sophomore Cyrus Hobbi, fourth-year junior Giovanni Di Poalo and senior walk-on Nathan Guertler are other linemen who could be called upon.
Freshmen Nico Falah and Khaliel Rodgers are on track to be redshirts.
Martin has no doubt that the line will rise to any challenge, especially in crucial situations.
“Whether it’s at the goal line or third and two, it’s something we look forward to,” he said. “We look forward to running the ball now.”
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