Coach Pete Carroll, right, hugs Ryan Kalil following USC's win over Notre Dame. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
When Fresno State coach Pat Hill discussed USC's prolific offense during his weekly press conference Tuesday, he didn't single out usual suspects Reggie Bush or Matt Leinart.
"I am a big Ryan Kalil fan," said Hill, turning more than a few heads. "I think it starts with him. He is the leader of that [offensive line]. He is an outstanding, outstanding offensive center."
In fact, Hill tried to get Kalil to come play for the Bulldogs.
"I really liked him out of high school. We recruited him out of Servite. I thought we had a chance."
But in an exclusive interview, Kalil said Hill's staff was less than frank during his recruitment. "Fresno State told me that my good friend Sam Baker had committed to them, and they told Sam the same about me," said Kalil, "just because they wanted the two of us to play for them."
Instead, Kalil chose the Trojans.
"The first love I got was from 'SC," he said. "In high school I was in this phase where I didn't know what I wanted to do and it really stressed me out. Recruiting seemed like a forever process."
But a good showing at a USC football camp cleared things up. Kalil was attracted to "the energy, the love, the guys. And Coach Carroll was the icing on the cake."
"When Pete took me upstairs and offered me a scholarship, he was probably waiting for me to talk about my other options and ask for time to think about it," said Kalil, "but I was ready and said, 'I want to be a Trojan.'"
Now a USC veteran, Kalil is clearly happy with that decision.
"Coach Carroll knows how to do a good balance between fun and work. Attention all the time is tiring, mentally and physically," he said, "but Coach Carroll uses jokes, team outings and competition drills to get guys excited and in high spirits."
Kalil says that is especially helpful toward the end of a season, when the effects of big-time college football start to take their toll.
"Coach Carroll helps with the team's endurance for the long season by mentally refreshing us," he said, "making it fun. Otherwise people start to think of it as a job."
But that's not to say football isn't taken seriously at USC.
"We prepare every week as though it's our last," said Kalil. "It's so hard mentally and physically in practice each week, so for games all we have to do is bring our heart and the rest will follow."
Even so, Kalil admits that USC has underestimated teams in the past.
"Two years ago we did with Cal, and even last year with Stanford it happened."
"It's hard to do what we do, to win college football games," said Kalil, "and it's harder the higher up the totem pole you are. It's our opponent's championship game every week because everyone wants to beat us, so it has to be a championship game for us, too."
"But it's fun to see where we have come from since Cal two years ago and even the Stanford game," he said. "We are learning from our mistakes."
As the USC winning streak grows, the pressure on the program increases as well, but Kalil said it doesn't get to the players.
"Coach Carroll does a great job of keeping the pressure away from us," he said, "setting us up to do what we need to do to win."
"Every team has talented players. It's just how you utilize them. And Coach Carroll does a great job of doing that."