July 25, 2008

Position preview: O-line

At the bulk of the spots on the field for the Trojan football team, players know where they're headed and what they'll be doing come the start of fall camp.

The offensive line, though, is a little different.

Hit harder by graduation and the NFL Draft than any other unit, the offensive line will be taking a different shape come fall.

Just a single starter returns, but head coach Pete Carroll isn't too concerned. He knows the guys he's planning to play all have already seen the field.

Experience, it seems, is more than just a number.

"I look at it differently than people who just add up returning starters," Carroll said. "I know Butch Lewis can play. I know Charles Brown can play. I know Kristofer O'Dowd can play. I know Zack Heberer can play.

"They've all been in games and played. I watched in them in spring practice against our guys, and they did well."

But looking at who will play where this upcoming season isn't an exact science.

"Right now, no one really has a clue," senior tackle Nick Howell said.

Jeff Byers looks primed to return to his spot at left guard, where he started 12 times last fall. Byers has battled illness this summer but found his way back onto the field this week.

"In the summer, we're really focusing on getting conditioning," Byers said. "This is really team-building time. Everyone's been coming here and working really hard. Everyone's bought in."

But the group will be tested early this season, facing Virginia's 3-4 defense and Ohio State's 4-3 defense in its first two games.

"We are playing some really difficult teams off the bat. It's a big transition," Carroll said. "We'll have to adapt to all that. Adapting is the most challenging thing to young guys. That's the hardest thing because they don't have the reservoir of experience."

But with sophomore Kristofer O'Dowd, who seems to be entrenched at center, Carroll feels the line is in good hands when it comes to adjusting.

"With really good leadership, it can become easier though. That's why I'm really happy about Kristofer O'Dowd," Carroll said. "He's taken over and is really the bell cow for us now. He's way ahead of where you'd think he'd be with his ability to verbalize and analyze and do the other things that position calls for."

It's anyone's best guess who will join Byers and O'Dowd on the line come opening day. Heberer, Brown and Lewis have starting experience.

Lewis, a candidate to start at either tackle spot, has been impressed with the group's cohesion this summer amidst the competition.

"Everyone's doing really well, and the team's coming together," he said. "The competition keeps us working hard. It's open. Anyone can play any position."

Heber's chance to step in at right guard came when Chilo Rachal left school after his junior season for the NFL.

""I thought, now it's my time to shine," Heberer said. "I knew I'd have to buckle down and work hard to get to where I want to be.

"That's why I came here - to play football. Now I have my opportunity, and I'm not going to let it past me."

At the other tackle position, Brown's hoping to bring a more stabilized presence to the field.

"I just want one thing, consistency," Brown said. "And, I want it in everything I do."

Other potential contributors are Thomas Herring, Alex Parsons, Matt Meyer and Michael Reardon.

An impressive class of true freshman will push the group as a whole.

Tyron Smith and Matt Kalil both could see time at tackle.

"There's an opportunity to play. I'm just going to work my hardest and see what happens. If I don't play, I'll have an extra year to know all the plays and be with the program more," Kalil said. "If I do play, I'll have more game experience. Either way it'll be a good situation for me."

Smith said his biggest adjustments would have to do with the speed of the play.

"Everything's faster," Smith said. "It's all about power and speed. I'm just going to watch the starters, and do what I can to catch up to those guys."

Khaled Holmes, former Trojan Alex Holmes' brother, is taking a similar approach to Kalil's.

" I'd like to come in and work really hard, and hopefully, play my way onto the field," Holmes said. "I'd love to be able to get on the field as a freshman, but we'll see how it goes. It's a goal."

The group could get even stronger if Daniel Campbell arrives before fall camp.

The uncertainty surrounding who will play where might keep pundits and prognosticators guessing, but if you listen to the players, it's only making them better this summer.

"It makes it more of a competition out here," Howell said. "No one is really set in one spot right now, and it makes us work with more intensity."

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