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Tuesday, February 18, 2014
USC spring battle spotlight: Right tackle

By Johnny Curren

When USC opens spring practice on March 11, new offensive line coach Tim Drevno will begin the process of finding the most productive combination of players to fill out the starting unit. A collection of veterans, unproven underclassmen and two early entry freshmen make up a talented-but-thin group which will immediately be thrown into an atmosphere marked by heightened competition.

Max Tuerk
Max Tuerk might be the favorite to win USC's starting right tackle job.
The battle at right tackle, in particular, should be interesting to watch as Drevno is given the task of replacing a three-year starter at the position in Kevin Graf. Heading into the spring, however, there is no clear-cut favorite who has waited in the wings behind him.

Making matters even more difficult is the uncertain status of Zach Banner and Jordan Simmons -- both of whom could be listed as candidates for the position. Banner had hip surgery last fall, while Simmons suffered a season-ending knee injury in October. Of the two, Banner is likely the closest to returning in time for the spring, although even if he does make it back, it’s unknown whether he’d be able to jump right in and participate in all or just a portion of the drills. If by chance he is immediately back in the mix, however, the Trojans get a huge 6-foot-9 body back in the fold who has some nice raw athletic skills. However, he has struggled with his flexibility in the past -- an issue that played a part in his surgery.

Aundrey Walker (ankle), who started eight games at left tackle in 2012, is another potential contender who also wound up on the sideline due to injury at the end of last season, but his future seems to be at right guard, where he showed some real improvement in 2013.

With the way everything is shaking out, the most obvious frontrunner to land atop the depth chart at right tackle might be Max Tuerk, although you could say the same thing about him in regard to the left guard position -- where he started 13 of 14 games in 2013 -- and potentially even at center -- where he took reps last spring. The team’s sturdiest and most versatile returning offensive lineman, he has the added benefit of having performed well at the position against Oregon State last season, and he also earned seven starts at left tackle as a freshman. Whether he’s at tackle, guard or center, you know you’re getting a standout contributor with Tuerk no matter what, so the overriding consideration in deciding where he plays just might lie in where the team needs him most. The development of interior players such as Khaliel Rodgers, Giovanni Di Poalo and midyear enrollee Toa Lobendahn will play a big role in whether Tuerk lines up on the outside this spring. The coaches also might factor in the anticipated fall arrival of highly touted freshman interior linemen Damien Mama and Viane Talamaivao, as well as tackle/guard Chris Brown.

And speaking of Lobendahn, there’s always the possibility that he could enter the fray at right tackle, although at 6-3, he really projects more to guard or center. Like Tuerk, though, he’s incredibly versatile, and he shined at tackle on the high school level.

Fifth-year senior walk-on Nathan Guertler will almost certainly take reps at right tackle -- where he served as a backup for much of last fall -- this spring. Having exceeded expectations since his arrival on campus, he has proven to be a valuable reserve, and he impressed while filling in at tight end in 2013. He could be the dark horse of the group.

Six-foot-6, 285-pound Nico Falah, who redshirted as a freshman in 2013, is a technically sound lineman with a strong all-around skill set, but the big question is whether he’ll enter the spring having bulked up enough to pose a serious challenge. If he has added the necessary weight, he could be capable of making a run at the spot.

And finally, Jordan Austin is another early arriving freshman who lands at USC in time to take part in spring drills, but he enters in the same situation that Falah did -- needing to add strength and mass to his frame -- making the likelihood of him making an instant splash somewhat of a long shot.