It wasn’t too long ago that Lane Kiffin raved about the left side of his offensive line.
As training camp spilled over into the regular season, there was a thought that the USC head coach was really excited about what he was looking at on the left side – a redshirt freshman left tackle, Chad Wheeler, who emerged out of nowhere after putting on some 60 pounds since stepping foot on campus and sophomore guard Max Tuerk, who despite playing a lot the year before, was finally in a position where he could seriously contribute and hold his own at the collegiate level.
The common denominator with those two is their youth. Wheeler, who has played well this season, showed his youth last Saturday in the win over Utah State.
He was matched up a lot with Aggies defense end, Kyler Fackrell, and his lack of experience didn’t do him any favors.
The most glaring faux pas was when he was beat for a sack fumble that was recovered by the Aggies in the second quarter.
The Utah State sack totals from Saturday won’t do the Aggies defense any justice. They were credited with three sacks, two by Fackrell, and no hurries. However, they hit Cody Kessler a bunch.
The USC quarterback, playing in just the second complete game of his career, admitted he was pretty banged up after the game.
“That was a tough game,” Kessler said. “That was a very, very physical game.”
The offensive line has been applauded for sparking an improved running game but pass protection hasn’t been as seamless. They’re giving up just over two sacks a game.
Although, there are four returning starters on the line, it’s somewhat deceiving.
Marcus Martin started at left guard his first two seasons and is now the starting center. John Martinez is a returning starter but now finds himself in a platoon situation at right guard with Aundrey Walker. Tuerk started at guard and tackle last season before experimenting with center during the offseason. Graf is once again the right tackle, while Wheeler looked on as a redshirt last season.
With all the shuffling, this unit is showing some weaknesses in pass protection. At the top of the list is communication.
“It’s not second nature for them,” Martinez said of his younger line mates’ communication. “It hasn’t come down to the point where they just do it naturally. They are just thinking too much about it.”
Kiffin noted that he may dedicate a tight end to help out Wheeler on the left side but overall, he’s pleased with what he’s seen from his freshman through four games.
“He’s young but I think Chad has done a really good job,” Kiffin said. “I think left tackle is a position where a lot of time you don’t get noticed unless something bad goes on and so he got beat for the sack cause fumble and I’m sure a lot of people noticed that but there’s a lot of plays in there where he’s going against a great player (Fackrell) and he’s holding his own.”
Arizona State, so far, hasn’t shown the ability to get after the quarterback but if USC’s offensive line finds itself just holding its own on Saturday, it could be a long night in the desert.