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USC's offensive line continues to shine: 'They played with this type of grit that is unmatched'

The offensive line's improvement was on display Saturday as the Trojans bulldozed their way to 233 yards on the ground

If you're looking for the unheralded star of USC's 3-0 start to the season, look no further than the offensive line.

What the Trojans' most veteran position group lacks in sheer talent and size, it makes up for with experience, preparation and hard work. The o-line has shown significant improvement not only from last year’s benchmark, but also in the few short weeks since the season began.

Head coach Lincoln Riley and offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Josh Henson expect to continue to see improvement from the big guys up front throughout the season and have specified Week 4 as a checkpoint by which the group should complete the biggest jump.

"I think everyone has their unique things to work on personally, but I think as a unit, those plays where we’re all five doing our job look good,” redshirt sophomore tackle Jonah Monheim said Tuesday after practice. “When we’re all five on, we’re doing well so I think the biggest thing [to improve] is just consistency."

Riley was very complimentary of Monheim, who is among the younger offensive lineman seeing the field. 

“He’s been fantastic for us. I don’t think he’s missed one day of anything," Riley said. "He’s a really consistent competitor, he’s mentally tough and very smart when you consider his age. He’s advanced there. Those two areas he’s above and beyond what you would typically see, especially with an offensive lineman that age. He’s getting better fast and quickly becoming a very, very good player.”

Monheim was a starter for seven games on the front end of last season, but saw reduced snaps as the season came to a close. However, he has trusted in his teammates and the day-to-day grind that’s required to get the team and himself to a higher level.

Veteran center Brett Neilon’s presence is huge for this group, and it doesn’t go unnoticed by Neilon’s teammates or coaches. 

“Whatever Brett says, we do,” Monheim said. “I have full trust in Brett. I know we all do. He has a ton of game experience.”

“He’s a smart kid. He’s doing a good job mentally with all that we throw at those guys,” Riley said of Neilon. “He’s been impressive there; I think that’s been expected.”

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Though Neilon is considered undersized for his position, his coaches don’t want that to limit him on the field and say that he’s more than just a smart, experienced player. 

“You’re not Rudy, you have some ability,” Riley joked, referring to the 1993 football movie. “Everybody looks at him and sees he’s not a 6-4, 300-pound center. Okay, we get that, but you’ll watch the guy in the weight room, he’s strong. He moves a lot of weight.”

The offensive line's improvement was on display Saturday against Fresno State, as the team rushed for 233 yards, with two backs, Travis Dye and Austin Jones, each averaging over nine yards per carry.

USC Fresno State football Jason Goode 20228

"My linemen gave me the holes that I needed for that night, and I took advantage of them,” Dye said. “They played with this type of grit that is unmatched out there, and it allowed me and Austin to just expose [Fresno State’s defense.] Very appreciative of the o-line.”

Health and depth are still questions surrounding the line, particularly at left tackle. Courtland Ford missed the Fresno State game, and Bobby Haskins went down multiple times Saturday, ultimately leaving the game for good in the fourth quarter. Riley said after the game Haskins could have played the remainder of the game had it been a close game.

The two have been splitting snaps this season, and Riley said they will be good to go for Saturday's game at Oregon State. 

“[Courtland] was a full participant today; both of those guys were, so it’s good to have both of them back,” Riley said after practice. 

Oregon State has a strong defensive front and should be the biggest test for this o-line yet.

“They do a lot of unique things: they fly around, they move, they twist a lot, they blitz, they’ve got some unique packages and things like that,” Monheim said of the Beavers. “We’ve just gotta stay dialed in, prepare really hard. We had a good today, we’ve gotta come out and have a great day tomorrow.”