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July 24, 2009

Pre-camp Preview: Offensive line

The way that Pete Carroll has amassed talent at USC, it shouldn't come as a shock that the Trojans are again loaded at quarterback. They've got tons of talent in the backfield, and out on the flanks, the Trojans are stacked at receiver.

Yet all of that talent would be wasted if USC didn't have a competent offensive line.

Luckily for Carroll, the quarterbacks, those running backs, the receivers and USC fans, that's not the case.

What was

One of the many reasons why Mark Sanchez was able to put together such a prolific season had to have been because he was so well protected.

Charles Brown, Jeff Byers and Kristofer O'Dowd started all 13 games for the Trojans a left tackle, left guard and center, respectively.

The right side of the line did change over the course of the season after early-season injuries to Zack Heberer (turf toe) and Butch Lewis (illness). Alex Parsons stepped in for Heberer at left guard and started for the remainder of the year (10 games). Nick Howell replaced Lewis for six games before Lewis took the position back.

While the line may have fluctuated, the levels of success were fairly consistent. USC allowed only 18 sacks and ran the ball at a 5.0-yard-per-carry average.

What is

As soon as Jeff Byers decided to return for his sixth season on campus, the already strong USC line got even stronger.

"It's weird. We haven't lost anybody," Byers said. "It's déjà vu - or Groundhog Day. But don't think because we're all back that it's going to be the same five."

The first likely change in the USC starting lineup will be at right tackle, where Tyron Smith rose to the top spot on the depth chart during the spring.

Smith, a former five-star recruit, impressed coaches last season with his physique and willingness to learn. This spring, it appears he put it together enough to be inserted into the starting lineup.

"Tyron has really taken over at the right tackle spot. That was a great thought by Pat Ruel and the offensive coaches to give him a shot," Carroll said back in April. "He's not looked back at all and has been very solid there."

With Smith at right tackle, Lewis could end up sliding inside to right guard - if he can beat out Parsons and Heberer. He could also move to left tackle and battle with Brown.

"I don't know at all where they want me at at this point," Lewis said. "We'll see when we head into camp. From that point, I'm just going to compete, and we'll see where it ends at."

Another question mark is Brown's health, which has kept him from getting work in this summer.

O'Dowd has received full clearance after undergoing shoulder surgery following the season, and he's thrilled to be back spending time with the team.

"I don't like not being involved. It's tough when everyone is out here working hard on the field, and I'm stuck in the training room, trying to get my shoulder back to where it needs to be," O'Dowd said. "It's what I had to do. Not being able to play in the spring was really tough on me because I want to be out there with the guys. I want to go through what they're going through, but I had to do what I needed to do."

Howell and Heberer each could end up in the starting lineup, and Howell's move to right guard this spring sets up for a big-time battle with Parsons. Heberer seems headed to the left side, where he'll back up Byers.

Redshirt freshmen Matt Kalil and Khaled Holmes will be valued backups, and Martin Coleman could see time late in the game as a reserve after coming back from a serious ankle injury.

What will be

Like at plenty of other positions, the biggest questions will be who goes where.

O'Dowd and Byers will be on the field, without question. If Brown's healthy, he'll be there too. It seems like the coaching staff is committed to Tyron Smith at right tackle, but time at right guard is up for grabs.

Three players with starting experience, maybe four if Lewis moves inside, will vie for time there, leaving Ruel and Carroll a tough decision. The competition at right guard will be one of the most highly contested positional battles this fall camp.

Playing time will be tough to come by with so much talent and experience on board, but Carroll will play the best five, whoever that is.

John Martinez and Kevin Graf seem like redshirt candidates, and they should mature nicely with some pretty good mentoring.

It's cliché to say games are won along the lines, but for the Trojans' sake, it would be a good thing if that were true.



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