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USC’s offensive line looking for growth after shaky performance in opener

USC quarterback Kedon Slovis throws a pass during the second against San Jose State.
USC quarterback Kedon Slovis throws a pass during the second against San Jose State on Saturday at the Coliseum.
(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

It was only a brief blip in an otherwise fine debut, but with USC driving early in the fourth quarter of its opener, up just six points over San Jose State, Jonah Monheim lunged forward on a first-down pass play and missed his man.

The young right tackle’s missed block reverberated from there. The pocket collapsed. Kedon Slovis was sacked. And soon, the drive stalled, leaving USC to settle for a field goal.

What might have been a critical mistake was ultimately rendered moot by a pick-six on the ensuing possession. But after an offseason of anxiety around the offensive line, the miss was a reminder of the growing pains USC might still face this season with two redshirt freshmen finding their footing up front.

“We have a lot of room for them to grow to get better,” said new offensive line coach Clay McGuire, “and if we can get them to play to their potential and their ability fundamentally, I think we have a chance to have two really good tackles. Obviously, they’re young. But the thing is there’s a high ceiling there.”

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That promise was clear in Monheim’s rapid ascent to the starting offensive line this offseason, as he rode strong performances in the spring and summer to unseat senior incumbent Jalen McKenzie this fall. The praise for his play since has been nothing short of effusive.

But after his first start, Monheim offered a more sobering self-analysis.

No. 14 USC is set to kick off Pac-12 play against Stanford on Saturday at the Coliseum, with the Trojans pushing to build on their late surge against San Jose State.

“There’s a lot of things I need to clean up, a lot of things I need to do better,” Monheim said.

Courtland Ford, the redshirt freshman at left tackle, played through part of his debut with a dislocated finger on his left hand, leaving the field only briefly to have it set and taped. But Ford gave himself no breaks as he offered a frank assessment of his first game, listing out all the areas he planned to improve, from hand placement to leverage to pad level.

“Of course, it’s not perfect,” Ford said. “There’s stuff to improve on. I just want to pick up every little detail. I saw from the film the errors I created.”

The most glaring of those errors came in pass protection. Slovis was sacked just twice on the afternoon, but was often forced to operate from a collapsing pocket, with San Jose State pass rushers bearing down from the edge. According to Pro Football Focus, the two tackles each allowed three pressures on the outside, while the interior held the Spartans without a single pressure up the middle.

USC quarterback Kedon Slovis runs past San Jose State Spartans linebacker Jordan Cobbs.
USC quarterback Kedon Slovis runs past San Jose State Spartans linebacker Jordan Cobbs in the second half on Saturday at the Coliseum.
(John McCoy / Associated Press)
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“They’ve got to hold edge and keep the pocket,” McGuire said. “Kind of talking to the guys, when Kedon had a real clean, good pocket, I think he’s probably about 100 % in the game. When he had missed throws, it was because the pocket collapsed on him or something like that. So like I said, I challenged the guys if we can go out and give him a nice pocket to step up and work and throw, we’ve got a chance to be special.”

Still, McGuire was honest about his group’s early shortcomings. He wasn’t entirely satisfied with the run game, even after USC averaged 4.71 yards per carry, a better rate than all but one of its games last season. He thought the interior of the line looked “on the same page,” but said he expected growth.

After playing seven offensive linemen against San Jose State, McGuire said he also planned to continue rotating McKenzie and guard Justin Dedich in on the offensive line to “help our team stay healthy and stay fresh”.

Sam ‘Bam’ Cunningham, the Hall of Fame running back from USC credited with helping integrate college football in the early 1970s, died Tuesday. He was 71.

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And when it came to his two young tackles, McGuire was especially candid. Neither was close to perfect in pass protection. Both needed to be more physical with their hands and trust their fundamentals.

But for two freshmen making their first starts, there was plenty to build on.

“There’s a lot of things I need to clean up, a lot of things I need to do better,” Monheim said. “But there were some things, you know, that I felt good [about] that I need to do. Working on my hands a lot in pass pro, working on my punch. Like I said, just being a better edge for Kedon on that right side.”


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