Despite glowing preseason reviews, the USC Trojans faltered in many areas of the game in 2012, and one of the most glaring differences between last year’s 7-6 team and 2011’s 10-2 squad was at the left tackle position.
In 2011, with future fourth round NFL draft pick Matt Kalil protecting Matt Barkley, the Trojans were second in the nation with just eight sacks allowed. A year later, they gave up more than twice as many — 17 — including the hit against UCLA that ended Barkley’s college career.
Kalil wouldn’t have solved all of USC’s problems had he returned for his senior season, but it was clear that then-sophomore Aundrey Walker did not play anywhere close to the same level in 2012, and USC paid the price for his lack of experience and consistency.
The Trojans are on track to start another untested player at left tackle this year, hopefully with better results. Redshirt freshman Chad Wheeler, from nearby Santa Monica High School, has gotten most of the first-team reps this fall at the spot, with Walker moving over to guard.
Walker began the fall at left tackle with Wheeler listed as the co-starter on the right side, but a concussion held Walker out for about a week. His absence gave Wheeler, who missed most of spring football with a knee injury, a chance to make a strong push for a starting role.
Wheeler used his redshirt year to grow into a college-level offensive lineman: he added 60 pounds since he started at USC as an early enrollee. Now, he’s focusing on improving his technique, and he cites Kalil as one of the linemen he tries to emulate.
The coaching staff praised Wheeler’s athleticism and his consistency throughout camp. That consistency is what USC needs and what could catapult the youngster into one of the highest-profile positions on the offense.
Of course, starting an inexperienced young player at left tackle is a big risk, particularly when the team is also debuting a new starting quarterback, but the four returning O-line starters should be stronger and better able to help out after a year together on the line.
If the gamble pays off and Wheeler becomes the player the Trojans hope he will, he could be protecting the new quarterback for the rest of their USC careers.