There has been plenty of attention on the USC offensive line this spring, almost all of it pointed in three directions -- the battle for the vacant center position, Aundrey Walker’s bid to nail down the starting left tackle job, and the impact of Mike Summers, the newly hired assistant who has joined James Cregg as one of what is now two offensive line coaches on the Trojans staff.
Over on the right side of the line, meanwhile, guard John Martinez and tackle Kevin Graf have each quietly had a more-than-productive March and April. Two redshirt seniors set to start alongside each other for the third straight year, there’s nothing particularly glamorous about the hard-nosed duo, but as the unquestioned veteran leaders of an offensive line unit that is still very much a work in progress, they figure to play a vital part in determining how the group ultimately performs in the fall.
“We’re the right side, we have the most experience and we plan on leading these guys to wherever we need to go,” Martinez said.
Graf and Martinez are hoping that means a more consistent level of play for the offensive line next season. Because although it performed solidly for the most part in 2012 -- allowing just 17 sacks on the year -- it also struggled against some of the more physical defensive fronts, most notably Stanford’s and Notre Dame’s. Throw in the loss of Khaled Holmes -- the team’s starting center for the past two years -- and it becomes apparent just how crucial this spring is.
With a change in philosophy set in place by Summers, however, in addition to the two seasoned vets paving the way, it’s safe to say that the offensive line has its sights set high for 2013.
“One thing Coach Summers has brought in this spring is that we talk about being the best offensive line in the country, and that’s what our goal is,” Graf said. “We’re here to be the best. We’re here to be the greatest offensive line in the country, and that’s what we need to work harder towards.”
In Graf, the Trojans have a prototypical tackle with 6-foot-6, 300-pound size to go along with deceptive athleticism and a unique football IQ that comes with growing up in a football family. His father, Allan, and brother, Derek, both played for the Trojans on the offensive line.
Martinez, at 6-2 and 305 pounds, is more of a brawler on the interior with a strong build and quick feet. Like Graf, he has football in his genes, with a number cousins having played collegiately, and a brother, Keni Kaufusi, currently on the California roster.
Both arrived at USC as members of the Class of 2009 during the Pete Carroll era. Graf, from Agoura Hills (Calif.), and Martinez, a Salt Lake City (Utah) Cottonwood, product actually first met at the Under Armor All-American Game that year and became fast friends.
That bond has transferred over to the field where, having made a total of 25 starts next to each other, the two share a unique familiarity and comfort in the knowledge that they can always count on one another.
“We have trust,” Graf said. “I know that he’s going to have my back, and he knows that I’m going to have his, and that’s the most important thing.”
In particular, it’s the relative ease with which they can communicate with each other on the line in the heat of battle that works not only to their own benefit, but to that of the entire offense.
“He knows what needs to happen if I need help, and I know what needs to happen if he needs help on certain assignments with pass protections and everything like that,” Martinez said. “So I definitely feel like familiarity and the sense of communication that we have with each other really helps out a lot during the games.”
“We’ll have full-on conversations on the line, because we know that we need to be able to communicate with each other -- we need to be able to see everything, and that definitely helps,” added Graf. “And when you’ve been training with someone next to you for three years, it’s almost easy.”
But their synchronicity on the field isn’t the only reason for their success. Having made names for themselves both in the weight room and on the practice field for the determined way in which they go about their work, they continue to strive to improve.
“We’re still getting better,” Graf said. “When we first started, we were just sophomores, and by the time you’re a senior, you’ve grown a lot in terms of your maturity, and you’ve grown up as a player and a person, but you can still get better every day, and that’s what we do.”
With a work ethic like that, their emergence as leaders over the last year has developed naturally. This spring, however, they’ve each taken that responsibility up a notch.
“I definitely think that I’ve stepped up as a leader, because now that Khaled is gone it’s our turn,” Martinez said. “You have to have someone fill that role on a team, and I feel like that’s what me and Kevin have done on the offensive line. We have the experience to lead them and to show them the path to take.”
“I’m not going to be here forever, and John isn’t going to be here forever, so when the time comes for us to leave, the younger guys need to be ready,” Graf said.
Following the lead of Graf and Martinez, there are signs the offensive line is slowly starting to come together. The two vets are part of a starting unit that features Marcus Martin at center, Max Tuerk at left guard and Walker at left tackle. Over the past two weeks of practice, there has been a noticeable improvement in the group’s level of play.
“It’s been a roller-coaster ride, but I feel like everything is starting to come together now,” Martinez said. “Spring break is over, we’ve got all of the jitters out and everyone is here to play ball. That’s what we need to do, because the offensive line had a decent season last year, and now we need to make a point to everyone else that we’re the foundation of the offense.”
If the offensive line does fulfill Martinez’s goal in establishing that mindset, it’s not far-fetched to imagine both he, as well as Graf, capping their USC careers off on the right note in 2013.
“Finishing off strong is important for us as seniors,” Martinez said. “I definitely think that we’re going to make a point to everybody that we mean business, and we’re going to hold down that right side.”