August 9, 2008

Practice Insider: O-line slowly taking shape

It's almost a badge of honor.

When you shake hands with an offensive lineman and he winces a little, he's been doing his part.

Center Kristofer O'Dowd had a pair of fingers taped, and he was in some pain. But, it didn't stop him from leading the offensive line through the Trojans' fourth practice of fall camp Saturday.

"Bumps and bruises aren't our thing," he said. "We play through it. It's no big deal."

The rules are different for this group of guys. They don't care about the nicks that are part of fall camp.

"The rules are different for the offensive line than they are for the running backs or the other skill positions. If they get hurt, they'll either be done for the day or go a couple more plays," right tackle Nick Howell said. "For linemen, if we have the flu or a broken leg, it doesn't matter. We have to play through it.

"That's part of being an offensive lineman, and Coach Ruel likes to see guys play through stuff."

Saturday, freshman Khaled Holmes showed his toughness by playing after suffering a finger injury in one-on-ones. After having it looked at, he returned and took first-team reps at right guard.

"I think he's excelled the most of the freshmen," O'Dowd said. "That's how you learn. You get thrown against the ones, and you see what you can do."

There's still a fair amount of fluidity along the line of scrimmage, with guy shuffling positions on a regular basis.

However, Howell said chemistry isn't the number one concern right now.

"It's all about getting the reps in right now. Coach Ruel's more concerned with the footwork and knowing the plays," Howell said. "He wants to see the freshmen get some action and see how they do. For the seniors when we're out, he wants us doing mental plays."

The unit has received a little boost by Jeff Byers' presence on the field for stretches in practice. He's not been able to go a full day yet, and O'Dowd said that's no big deal.

"Jeff's a senior," O'Dowd said. "We all know he knows what to do. I don't really care if he plays any downs in camp.

"As long as he stays healthy and plays during the season, I'm fine with it. He's been through it all."

Without Byers on the line, O'Dowd's become the vocal, steadying presence.

"Kris is a big leader on this offense. He brings us into the huddle," Howell said. "He makes the calls. We all depend on him."

No average Joe

Just a normal swing pass, nothing major - unless, of course, Joe McKnight's on the receiving end.

In 11-on-11 work Saturday, McKnight caught a ball behind the line of scrimmage and shot up the near sideline.

Only safety Marshall Jones separated McKnight from 60 yards of open field, and McKnight made his mass - bad.

With a quick fake to the outside and a quicker step back in, Jones got left while McKnight ran for the sure score.

"Joe looks great," head coach Pete Carroll said. "If you can imagine it, he's 20 pounds heavier than last year and faster than ever. He looked like he was lightening fast on that swing."

McKnight's had a great four days of camp so far, and Carroll credits McKnight's mental approach.

"He really knows what's going on. He's comfortable with what we're doing with him already," Carroll said. "Last year, we probably went too far too fast with him and slowed him down during the games. Once he got comfortable, you saw what he could do.

"He's out here kicking it now. It's exciting to watch him."

Instead of battling with 10 other backs for carries like in his freshman camp, McKnight's working with a thinner, more streamlined running back crew. But it hasn't mattered to the electric sophomore.

"You still have to compete against the other six we have," he said. "It's nothing different."

Hit men

Linebackers coach Ken Norton Jr. wanted to send a message while the full team stretched.

Saturday wasn't going to be a fun day for the offense.

"I would not want to be in a white jersey today," he shouted. "Coaches and players, all of you are going down."

The message was received.

The linebackers punished the running backs and fullbacks in one-on-one blocking drills, with Uona Kavienga running right over Adam Goodman.

Rey Maualuga got in a crashing shot on Vidal Hazelton, and Taylor Mays unloaded on Hazelton later in the day.

"When you see your coaches all fired up, they're leading by example," defensive tackle Christian Tupou said. "Today, we followed."

The offense gave as good as it got, though.

Allen Bradford lowered his shoulder and ran over Averell Spicer, firing up the offense. Bradford also bounced off Mays and Kevin Ellison during the team run.

The hit of the day, though, reeked of revenge.

On the first day of practice, Will Harris popped Blake Ayles three separate times.

Saturday, the freshman unloaded a hellacious block that sent Harris flying out of a play, with the crowd's reaction as the only thing louder than the pads crashing.

Sunday night lights

The Trojan football team has hit a milestone in fall camp, and Sunday, it's time for some fun.

The team will wear full pads for the first time under the lights at Howard Jones Brian Kennedy Field. Practice begins at 7:30 p.m.

"When we go under the lights, they're going to have a blast out here. It feels like a high school football game. It'll be fun for them," Carroll said. "That's part of the deal. For me, it's a reward for them. We've gone through four days, and we'll give them a little extra rest.

"A lot of people should come out; it'll be fun to see."

Extra Points

• Quarterback Mark Sanchez watched practice on a golf cart with a brace on his injured left knee. Carroll said Sanchez is already feeling better and should begin rehab on Monday.

O'Dowd, who missed six weeks last season after dislocating his kneecap and tearing cartilage, marveled at Sanchez's accommodations.

"A cart? I didn't even get a crutch," he said.

• With Sanchez out, Mitch Mustain and Aaron Corp took the bulk of the reps, with Mustain getting a longer look with the No. 1's.

Neither separated themselves Saturday, and Corp may have had the better day. The ups and downs, are to be expected though.

"They're just in the middle of practice. They're working hard and learning their stuff. They're both able to make plays out here everyday, and there's obviously some times when they're struggling with the installation.

"That's totally what should be happening right now."

• In addition to Sanchez, T.J. Bryant, Brice Butler, Tyron Smith, Marc Tyler, Chris Galippo, Luthur Brown and Trey Henderson did not participate Saturday.

Bryant missed practice with skin irritation caused by the equipment. He should be back soon. Tyler sat out after taking a blow to the head in drills Friday. He's day-to-day.

Garrett Green wore a yellow jersey, working as the No. 3 quarterback. Early in the practice, tight end Anthony McCoy came up to Green and shoved him around.

"I'm in yellow today," Green said. "No hands."

Cary Harris had a monster day, picking off a Mustain pass and deflecting three others.

Josh Pinkard appeared to be shaken up during the workout. He didn't speak to the media after and was escorted back to the locker room by a member of the USC medical staff.

Damian Williams has continued to impress with another solid day Saturday.

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