Gold: USC's skill position talent stacks up against the best in the country; about that line...
LOS ANGELES — Off to a program-resurrecting 5-0 start and up to No. 6 in the Associated Press Top 25 rankings, things could not be going much better for the USC football team.
Coming off a 4-8 season that went down as the Trojans’ worst record since 1992, when USC looked like a shell of its former self, in came Lincoln Riley and a bevy of talented transfers, and now the Trojans look like the Trojans of old.
USC leads the nation in interceptions (12), turnovers forced, turnover margin (2.80) and rank in the top 10 in 3rd-down conversion percentage (5th, .556), 4th-down conversion percentage (T-7th, .833), defensive touchdowns (T-2nd, 3), red-zone defense (3rd, .600); scoring (10th, 32.2), sacks (T-5th, 19).
Its skill position talent ranks among the country’s elite, with quarterback Caleb Williams, running backs Travis Dye, Austin Jones and Raleek Brown and wideouts Jordan Addison, Tahj Washington and Mario Williams among the Pac-12’s best players.
USC stands atop the conference with a 5-0 record and 3-0 in league play, by way of an early season Pac-12 opener against Stanford (a 41-28 win). The Trojans appear headed to at least the conference title games, though tough tests against Washington State (this Saturday at 4:30 p.m.), No. 11 Utah (next week) and No. 18 UCLA (Nov. 19) still remain.
But simply reigning at the top of the Pac-12 isn’t going to cut it for USC fans who clamor for the days of national titles and Heisman Trophies. Around Heritage Hall, expectations are skyrocketing.
Yet one scary reality looms large for the Trojans. Really large. As in, the largest of them all.
Does USC have the offensive line to stack up against the rest of the country’s elite?
On a team that treated the transfer portal as its own personal recruiting vessel, the Trojans got the least amount of help among the offensive line. And for good reason; USC returned abundant veteran talent up front. The Trojans returned 89 starts up front, split among left guard Andrew Vorhees (37 starts), center Brett Neilon (29), left tackle Courtland Ford (9), right guard Justin Dedich (7) right tackle and Jonah Monheim (7).
Vorhees and Neilon rank among the best in the country at their positions, while Dedich and Monheim are among the league’s best at theirs. Ford has shown the ability to hold down the fort when healthy, and he gets rotates with Bobby Haskins, the Trojans’ lone offensive line transfer, who started 20 games in his Virginia career.
Judging by Pro Football Focus standards, the Trojans are stout up front.
Here are USC’s top 5 offensive line grades from 2022, with their ratings and snap counts:
- C Brett Neilon 85.9 grade in 331 snaps
- OG Andrew Vorhees 81.4/335
- OG Justin Dedich 79.6/264
- OT Jonah Monheim 75.6/331
- OT Bobby Haskins 69.9/253
Here is how their 2022 grades stack up to the 5 teams ahead of them in the AP polls:
(Position – Player – 2022 Grade – 2022 Snaps)
Alabama Crimson Tide
- C Darrian Dalcourt 74.4 225
- OT JC Latham 75.7 299
- OT Tyler Steen 73.4 298
- OG Javion Cohen 66.6 177
- OG Emil Ekiyor Jr. 76.9 235
Ohio State Buckeyes
- C Luke Wypler 80.3 291
- OT Dawand Jones 78.1 291
- OT Paris Johnson 74.8 291
- OG Donovan Jackson 79.6 291
- OG Matthew Jones 71.4 288
- C Olusegun Oluwatimi 74.5 264
- OT Trente Jones 76.7 282
- OT Ryan Hayes 72.4 210
- OG Zak Zinter 72.5 264
- OG Giovanni El-Hadi 63.6 191
- C Sedrick Van Pran 64.7 308
- OT Broderick jones 76.4 301
- OT Warren McClendon 67.0 285
- OG Xavier Truss 64.2 307
- OG Tate Ratledge 63.8 282
- C Will Putnam 62.9 344
- OT Jordan McFadden 77.0 335
- OT Blake Miller 71.1 350
- OG Marcus Tate 62.1 344
- OG Walker Parks 55.0 336
USC’s average grade of 78.48 rates better than all 5: Ohio State’s 76.84, Alabama’s 73.4, Michigan’s 71.88, Georgia’s 67.22, Clemson’s 65.62.
But those grades only tell half the story. And the other half isn’t so pretty.
The first sign of trouble came in Week 2 against Stanford. The Cardinal — not exactly world-beaters up front anymore — sacked Williams 3 times in a 41-28 USC win. Williams was at his best that day nonetheless, passing for 341 yards and 4 touchdowns win zero interceptions, deftly avoiding traffic many other times.
The next week against Fresno State, 3 more sacks, yet again Williams shined, completing 25-of-37 passes for 284 yards and 2 scores with zero interceptions in a 45-17 win.
A week later, facing a non-stop Oregon State pass rush in front of a terribly hostile crowd in Corvallis, Ore., Williams was unable to find a groove. At times he was downright bad, yet he escaped with just 2 sacks allowed and threw a clutch game-winning touchdown with just over a minute left to play in the game. Still, his 16-of-36 passing for 180 yards and 95.6 quarterback rating was worrisome.
Last week against Arizona State, with a banged-up Dedich sidelined, USC was forced to turn to redshirt junior reserve Gino Quinones, who entered the game at right guard for the first time in 3 years. It wasn’t always pretty, as the Trojans rushed for a season-worst 137 yards, though Williams emerged relatively unscathed in a 42-25 win.
Things only get tougher from here for USC. This week they’ll face a Washington State defense that ranks third nationally in tackles for a loss (44) and seventh in sacks (18) and then the Trojans travel to Utah to square off against the defending Pac-12 champion Utes and their always steady defensive line.
Riley is being careful not to look ahead to Utah with the Cougars looming.
And he’s not the only one to show some concern. Just about every media outlet covering the Trojans has touched on the o-line issues.
“They do a lot like what our defense does. They’re aggressive up front. They move enough to cause you problems,” Riley told reporters after Tuesday’s practice. “Their linebackers are also very active, safeties are active. They fly around and cause a lot of havoc and do a really nice job of it. So, you’ve got to be on your game assignment-wise. … Your mistakes are going to be TFLs against these guys.”
Riley is hoping Dedich returns, which would be critical to USC’s success against both teams.
“He’s better,” Riley said. “It was good we were able to hold him (against ASU). Where does that leave us? We’ll see. We’ll keep evaluating him throughout the week. We’re trying to be smart. Obviously, we would love for him to be able to play, but then the flip side of it is we’ve got a lot of season left, you know? And you’ve got to be smart with him. Obviously, if he’s not out there, it’s not just … he didn’t break a toenail.”
Broken toenails are a lot easier to recover from than broken hearts, and that’s what USC will be left with unless it tightens things up on the line.
Those PFF grades seem all well-and-good until you look at the sacks allowed totals for the Trojans’ stiffest competition.
Ohio State’s CJ Stroud has been sacked just 3 times, Georgia’s Stetson Bennett 4 times, Alabama’s Bryce Young 5 times, Clemson’s DJ Uiagalelei 7 times and Michigan’s JJ McCarthy 8 times.
After getting through the gauntlet of the Pac-12, if USC is going to have any success in the postseason, it will have to keep Williams upright and healthy.
The Trojans have the skill position talent to contend.
Now the offensive line has to prove it is up to the task.