LOS ANGELES -- When word of new Trojans offensive line coach Tim Drevno was first announced by head coach Steve Sarkisian, it was received with both thunderous applause and a sense of mystery.
Why would Drevno leave the highly successful San Francisco 49ers and long-time mentor Jim Harbaugh and return to the college game? After all, the NFL offers a great salary, a tremendous retirement plan for assistant coaches, and one doesn’t have to deal with the non-stop world of recruiting.
“The big draw for me was USC,” said Drevno, a Southern California native. “My grandfather went to USC -- a 1951 graduate of the pharmacy school -- my sister is a 1982 graduate in hospital administration, and I grew up a USC fan going to games.”
The dream of his youth was to be a USC tailback and receive all the acclaim that goes with one of college football’s most storied positions.
“I used to be on my mom’s bed and would jump over the bed acting like I was Marcus Allen,” said Drevno, a former all-league lineman at South Torrance (Calif.) High. “I wanted to be a tailback, but I grew up to be an offensive lineman.”
Although he played at Cal State Fullerton, where he received his degree in criminal justice in 1992, you get the impression that Drevno is living a second childhood after being named the Trojans offensive line coach.
USC fans are hoping that Drevno brings some of the Jim Harbaugh toughness that was a cornerstone of Stanford football, where the two coached together for four years before transitioning to the San Francisco 49ers in 2011.
“I love the man,” said the 44-year-old Drevno. “He taught me to run the ball first and be physical up front -- attack each day with enthusiasm unknown to mankind. You’re either getting better or you’re getting worse; you’re never staying the same. Be the best at whatever you do.”
Drevno’s 49ers résumé is impressive. In 2013, tackle Joe Staley and guard Mike Iupati made the Pro Bowl. In 2012, all five of the 49ers’ line starters were selected for the Pro Bowl, and Iupati was a first-team All-Pro selection. Not bad for a coach whose previous coaching stops also include Cal St. Fullerton, Montana State, UNLV, San Jose State, Idaho, and the University of San Diego.
So should Trojans fans soon expect the same type of powerful offensive lines that Drevno formed with the 49ers and Stanford?
“First, we’ll have to see what we’re working with and we’ll piece it together as we go,” Drevno said.
And what will it take for the Trojans to play Drevno’s physical brand of offensive line football?
“Covering somebody up, moving your feet and hands, and getting after it,” Drevno said. “It’s about both attitude and technique. This game is about blocking and tackling. Those are the qualities it takes to win, and the physicality comes later.
“All of football is a mindset when it comes to physical play. You have to work at it to be good at it. You just can’t do one thing and be one-dimensional. It’s a want to and a brotherhood in the room. You have to want to take ownership.”
Despite the Trojans limited numbers, Drevno takes a practical yet positive approach as his unit embarks on a new system.
“We’ve got a great group to work with and we have 10 healthy guys right now,” Drevno said. “We have other guys that will be healthy soon, and you just push forward. Guys are working hard and getting better every day. You coach them hard.”
It was feared during the recruiting period that Drevno’s late addition to the staff might affect USC’s chances of signing a great offensive line class. As the 49ers went through the playoffs, only to lose to eventual Super Bowl champions Seattle Seahawks, Trojans recruits such as highly coveted Bellflower (Calif.) St John Bosco All-America prep tackle Damien Mama took notice.
“The staff did a great job of holding on to them and keeping me up to date,” Drevno said. “We lost that game in Seattle and I flew down immediately to be in the home of Damien Mama. These are good football players coming in and we’re excited to be working with them.”
Even before spring ball, Drevno had been hard at work evaluating his offensive linemen. It was decided about a month ago that starting junior offensive guard Max Tuerk would get yet another crack at center with the early departure of Marcus Martin to the 2014 NFL draft.
“Max is a smart guy, and we’re trying to put the best five guys on the field,” Drevno said. “He’s a veteran guy and he’s played a lot of snaps. We started there; we’ll mix it up and see what’s best for everybody.”
And everybody also means true freshmen Toa Lobendahn, a potential center candidate who left La Habra (Calif.) High early to enroll in time for spring practice, as did Claremont (Calif.) High tackle Jordan Austin.
“Toa comes from a football family with his dad being a coach,” Drevno said. “Coach's kids do the right things, and they been around a lot chasing balls around, so he fits in pretty well.
“I am really impressed with Toa and Jordan Austin. They all have tremendous want to and they want to be good. These guys are a very good draft class in terms of prospects.”
When asked about re-adjusting from coaching in the NFL to coaching in college, Drevno remains philosophical.
“Football is football whether you’re coaching Pop Warner, high school, college, or the pros,” Drevno said. “You roll the ball out and you execute at a high level. The patience level is the same; it’s a journey.”
Drevno’s cardinal and gold journey is just beginning. Not bad for a former USC tailback wannabe.