O-Line Struggles Could be Kiffin’s Undoing
By Chris Mahr
In the two years he spent as USC’s offensive coordinator (2005–2006), current Trojans head coach Lane Kiffin garnered widespread acclaim for his play-calling abilities — a big reason why the Oakland Raiders, Tennessee and USC have all deemed him head coach-worthy since 2007.
What Kiffin really had working for him during those two aforementioned seasons in Troy was an offensive line that gave his pro-style offense time to hum. Quarterbacks Matt Leinart and John David Booty were able to progress through their reads; running backs Reggie Bush and LenDale White had big holes to run through; and wide receivers Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith had time to get open downfield.
Kiffin is continuing to stick by the pro-style playbook by which he first made a name for himself. But unlike then, his team doesn’t have anything near the caliber of offensive line that can make his offense effective. Unless Kiffin adjusts, he’ll no longer be considered head coach-worthy at Southern Cal.
It’s rather perplexing that an area of the game that was one of the Trojans’ greatest strengths during their glory years in the 2000s has become an embarrassing weakness.
After all, the Trojans are still a recruiting force to be reckoned with. In February, they inked two Rivals four-star offensive linemen in Nico Falah and Khaliel Rodgers. The year before was an even more bountiful haul, as three of USC’s O-line signees — Zach Banner, Jordan Simmons and Max Tuerk — were among Rivals’ Top 50 recruits in the Class of 2012.
Luring top talent to Southern Cal hasn’t been the problem. Coaching them well enough where they live up to their expectations has been.
USC’s SB Nation blog, Conquest Chronicles, painted a disheartening (for Trojans fans) portrait of this problem following the team’s ugly 10–7 upset loss to Washington State on September 7th. As a whole, the team struggled to block on run plays…
...and even special teams.
Considering the talent that USC possesses, there’s no excuse for them to block as poorly as the above GIFs illustrated. That this seven-point performance came against the Cougars — our preseason pick for the Pac-12’s third-worst defense, one that gave up nearly 34 PPG a year ago — was all the more embarrassing.
Kiffin will be happy to hear that he’s not the primary fall guy for all this. The onus falls on his offensive line coaches, James Cregg and Mike Summers, although that doesn’t mean Kiffin’s out of the woods (more on that later).
Cregg — who was Kiffin’s O-line coach with the Raiders and at Tennessee — arrived at USC following the departure of predecessor Pat Ruel, who followed ex-Trojans head coach Pete Carroll to the Seattle Seahawks. Ruel helped send the likes of Sam Baker, Ryan Kalil and Deuce Lutui to the NFL. He’s been coaching the position for the last 40 years at the college and NFL levels.
Cregg doesn’t boast anything close to those credentials. When he became the Raiders’ O-line coach in 2007 shortly before turning 34, it was his first time coaching the position. Yes, he sent Tyron Smith and Matt Kalil to the NFL. But the unit’s struggles last year in both protecting Matt Barkley (four sacks by Stanford alone) and paving the way for a decent ground game led Kiffin to bring Summers in as Cregg’s co-position coach this past offseason.
Through three games, it hasn’t changed anything. USC is 86th in the country in scoring (24.0 PPG) while averaging a mediocre 196.0 rushing YPG (49th in FBS) and a paltry 163.3 passing YPG (104th).
If Kiffin knows what’s best for him, he’ll realize that this offensive line just isn’t ready for his nuanced play-calling. Aside from last week’s 35–7 win over a bad Boston College team, they haven’t been good at all blocking on the bubble screens, roll outs and stretch plays Kiffin has always loved to call. He needs to streamline his playbook for the offensive line he has — not the one he had from 2005–2006.
Stanford — the Pac-12 rival with perhaps the most similar offense to USC’s — is doing what USC is failing to. Even when Andrew Luck was there, they were a predominantly run-first team that got the majority of its yards up the gut. That set up play-action passes downfield and allowed Luck to find the holes in opposing secondaries.
What’s more, it allowed the Cardinal’s highly-touted offensive linemen — few other schools in the country have recruited as well at the position over the last five years — to come into their own, learn the system and live up to their potential.
Perhaps the rout of the Eagles last Saturday is a sign that things are getting better when it comes to the Trojans’ biggest bugaboo. USC was nearly even in rushing (257) and passing (264) yards. QB Cody Kessler had the best game of his collegiate career, throwing for 237 yards and two TDs on 15-of-17 passing while only getting sacked once.
If Kiffin can hold on to his job, he’d best be served by overhauling the offensive line coaching staff, perhaps giving Summers full control and letting Cregg go or cleaning shop entirely. Only then will those highly touted OL recruits live up to their potential. Only then will Kiffin get to call the plays that he loves to run and utilized to great effect in 2005 and 2006.
Only then will he live to “Fight On!” another day.
Chris Mahr is the managing editor of Lost Lettermen. His column appears on Tuesdays and Thursdays. You can follow him on Twitter at @CMahrtian.
Bottom Photo Credit: Gary A. Vasquez/USA Today Sports