Expectations are sky-high for USC in 2015 and the pressure is on the Trojans to return to the top tier of college football. If they get there this fall, it will be thanks to the improvement of the offensive line, which should emerge this season as one of the most dominant units in the Pac-12.
That's saying something when you examine the struggles of the group during 2014. According to Football Outsiders, USC's offensive line struggled in many key areas, ranking No. 76 in the country in Opportunity Rate (38.2%) and No. 104 in Power Success Rate (62.0%). This correlated directly to the Trojans ranking No. 7 in the Pac-12 in rushing offense last season, averaging just 160.9 yards per game on the ground.
The group was also pretty average when it came to pass protection. Football Outsiders ranked the unit No. 56 in Adjusted Sack Rate, with a 4.4% Standard Downs Sack Rate (No. 57) and 8.9% Passing Downs Sack Rate (No. 86). They ranked No. 7 in the conference, allowing an average of 2.46 sacks per game, which is far too many if the team hopes to push Cody Kessler as a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate this season.
When you break it down, though, there was a perfectly reasonable explanation for why the USC offensive line was muddled in mediocrity last season: Pretty much everyone was learning on the job. The team started four freshmen at different points last season, including three true freshmen (Viane Talamaivao, Toa Lobendahn, and Damien Mama), alongside first-year starter Zach Banner, a redshirt sophomore, at right tackle and junior Max Tuerk playing center for the first time in his career. They also lost starting left tackle Chad Wheeler early in the Utah game with a torn ACL that forced the entire group to be shuffled around.
All that inexperience and injury last season, however, will ultimately benefit the Trojans in 2015. Those wide-eyed freshmen from a year ago return as seasoned veterans ready to build off their experience. Wheeler returns to the starting lineup healthy and ready to anchor the line from his familiar spot at left tackle. And Tuerk has gone from learning to play center in 2014 to one of the top centers in the nation heading into 2015, even landing himself on the Rimington Trophy watch list this offseason.
Perhaps the biggest reason for optimism, though, is the development of Mama's athleticism this offseason. After appearing in 12 games as a true freshman last season, including two starts at right guard and two starts at left guard, Mama committed to getting in better shape this offseason, dropping his weight from 397 pounds when he arrived on campus last summer to 350 pounds this spring. That added athleticism will not only help the Trojans in Steve Sarkisian's up-tempo offensive attack, but also open up holes in the running game by improving the interior line's pull-blocking capabilities.
USC is loaded with talent offensively at quarterback and all the skill positions to make a run at the Pac-12 title in 2015. The driving force of their title run, however, will be in the trenches with an offensive line that should take major steps forward this fall.