USC Trojans: Chad Wheeler

LOS ANGELES -- With the recent season-ending ACL injury to Kenny Bigelow, a talented redshirt freshman defensive tackle, it makes a USC Trojans fan ponder which players on offense and defense head coach Steve Sarkisian cannot afford to lose?

Here is our list of the top five offensive and defensive players the Trojans need the most in 2014:

Offense
No position group at USC entered the spring surrounded by more uncertainty than the offensive line. With the key losses of Marcus Martin, Kevin Graf, John Martinez and Abe Markowitz, a new position coach in Tim Drevno, and the offense transitioning into Steve Sarkisian’s up-tempo, shotgun-based attack, no one knew quite what to expect. While there was certainly plenty of good to take away from their performance this spring, this is still a unit with more than a few question marks.

Both guard spots open

[+] EnlargeMax Tuerk
Kelley L Cox/USA TODAY SportsNo matter the position, Max Tuerk figures to have a starting job on USC's OL.
With only eight healthy scholarship players available, it was hard to ever get a real solid read on the offensive line, and as Sarkisian recently noted, this is a unit that will need to be solidified in the coming months.

That’s particularly the case at the guard positions, where, during spring drills, the Trojans featured a starting duo of early-entrant freshman Toa Lobendahn at left guard and second-year freshman Khaliel Rodgers at right guard.

And while both players – particularly Lobendahn -- showed promise, the entire competition at those spots is set to change dramatically as the Trojans gain an influx of talent from incoming freshmen as well as players returning from injury.

Of those players on the mend, senior Aundrey Walker, who is returning from a broken ankle, will be watched with particular interest. Establishing himself as a reliable starter at right guard in 2013 after an up-and-down 2012 campaign at tackle, he possesses veteran experience that could be invaluable to this unit.

Jordan Simmons, returning from a torn ACL, is a big mauler who was really starting to stand out in practice prior to his injury in the fall, and he’s another player who could make a run at a starting job on the interior.

Of course, in the case of both Walker and Simmons, it’s how their recovery goes, and what kind of shape they come back in -- particularly with the conditioning required for the new offense -- that will likely play the biggest role in determining whether or not they’re able to jump in and perform at a high level when fall camp opens up.

And then there is fifth-year senior Giovanni Di Poalo, as well as a pair of incoming freshmen guard candidates -- Damien Mama and Viane Talamaivao. Both youngsters arrive not only with more than their fair share of accolades, but also with unique talent and tremendous size -- giving them the look of potential instant impact performers.

Center of attention

With Martin off to the NFL, one of the new staff’s biggest priorities heading into spring practice was to find a capable starter at center. Max Tuerk, a tried and tested veteran who started 13 games at left guard in 2013, and the majority of the prior season at left tackle, wound up getting the call. While he did have some occasional difficulties in the snapping department, he performed solidly for the most part.

Chris Brown
Blair Angulo/ESPNIncoming freshman Chris Brown has been taking a lot of reps at right tackle during summer workouts.
Still, while Sarkisian lauded Tuerk’s overall ability during the recent Pac-12 football coaches teleconference, he also appeared to leave the door open for competition through fall camp, so this isn’t over just yet. Both Di Poalo and Lobendahn lined up at the position in the spring, and have continued to do so this summer during the team’s volunteer workouts. Talamaivao is another key name to watch here, as he too, has been taking reps at this spot over the course of the last week. It will also be interesting to see if Mama gets a look here when he arrives on campus.

If Sarkisian and Co. did decide to go with someone other than Tuerk here, it’s a virtual certainty that the junior would still line up as a starter somewhere else. Arguably the Trojans’ sturdiest pound-for-pound offensive lineman, he could conceivably slide back over to left guard or either of the tackle spots without a hitch.

Stability at tackle

While the interior of the line still isn’t totally set, the Trojans do appear to be in better shape at both of the tackle spots -- at least when it comes to the starters.

No player drew more praise from Sarkisian following spring drills than third-year sophomore left tackle Chad Wheeler. Having started every game last season, he looks primed for a fantastic 2014 campaign.

Over on the right side, the emergence of Zach Banner -- who sat out most of last season after having hip surgery -- was one of the great revelations of the spring. Performing at the highest level of his career, the 6-foot-9, 345-pounder took over with the No. 1 group in place of Nathan Guertler midway through camp and never looked back. Considering the fact that he said that he wasn’t even quite back to 100 percent during those workouts, there’s reason to believe he’s only going to get better, and it will be interesting to see just how much farther he can continue to progress this offseason.

Still, Drevno needs to find out who else he can count on to contribute at tackle, if nothing else, to provide depth. Early entrant freshman Jordan Austin and Guertler were the primary backups in the spring, and then there’s also Nico Falah -- returning from a back injury. Highly touted incoming freshman Chris Brown has also been taking reps at right tackle during summer drills.
LOS ANGELES -- USC head coach Steve Sarkisian took his turn on the phone on Thursday during the Pac-12 football coaches teleconference, revealing that among his biggest concerns for the Trojans heading into the fall is finding the right combination along the offensive line.

“Solidifying that front five -- who’s going to be where, that depth and all of that -- I think, is one key component for us,” Sarkisian said.

That doesn’t exactly come as a surprise. After all, this past spring the Trojans were without a 2013 starter in senior guard Aundrey Walker (ankle), as well as promising guard/tackle Jordan Simmons (knee) and tackle Nico Falah (back), all to injuries, making the lack of depth a glaring issue.

The Trojans featured a No. 1 offensive line unit throughout the majority of the March and April workouts that was comprised of Chad Wheeler at left tackle, Toa Lobendahn at left guard, Max Tuerk at center, Khaliel Rodgers at right guard and Zach Banner at right tackle.

[+] EnlargeMax Tuerk
Kelley L Cox/USA TODAY SportsMax Tuerk played center all spring and is almost certain to start somewhere on the line this fall.
But with Walker, Simmons and Falah all expected to return in time for fall camp, on top of the fact that the unit will add a trio of highly touted freshmen to the mix in Chris Brown, Damien Mama and Viane Talamaivao, the starting group could potentially have a very different look when the Trojans open up against Fresno State on Aug. 30.

Sarkisian noted that Mama and Talamaivao will both begin their USC careers on the interior. He did not discuss Brown, but most consider him to have the ability to line up at guard or tackle.

How the players who are coming off injury, as well those freshman additions, adjust to the new uptempo system and how they perform in fall camp will play a major part in what kind of role they’re ultimately going to play.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Sarkisian said. “So, that’s why the challenge is so big for us of how we’re handling that first week to get guys opportunities to show what they’re about, so we can start developing some cohesiveness amongst that offensive front as we move toward the season.”

Sarkisian spoke glowingly of Wheeler and also praised Tuerk, Lobendahn and Banner for their efforts this past spring. He also noted that Tuerk will continue to line up at center, where he played during the entirety of the spring, but he appeared to leave the door open for others to still compete at the position.

“I do know that Max Tuerk is a tremendous football player,” Sarkisian said. “He’s played a lot of football. He’s going to play for us this fall. He went through the entire spring as our center. We’ll obviously take a good, hard look at that early in training camp, along with a couple other guys.“

Response to SEC decision

One topic that was brought up throughout the call to all of the Pac-12 coaches was the Southeastern Conference’s recent decision to stick to an eight-game conference schedule.

With college football moving to a four-team playoff next season, the trend has been for conferences to adopt a nine-game conference schedule. Pac-12 and Big 12 teams already play nine conference games, and the Big Ten is scheduled to make the change in 2016.

When asked about the SEC’s decision, Sarkisian took the opportunity to praise the Pac-12 while also expressing his desire for a level playing field down the line.

“The Pac-12 has been on the forefront of the scheduling thing here for quite some time,” Sarkisian said. “I think it’s encouraging to see that the majority of college football is moving their way towards nine. I think for college football to find the common ground, the more areas we can all be the same so that there’s a competitive and level playing field for everybody, I think should be the goal.”

Hawkins impresses

When asked if there were any redshirt freshmen who stood out to him this spring at USC, Sarkisian answered with cornerback Chris Hawkins.

“From all of the accounts of all of the people that were here on the previous staff, he has really matured mentally and physically,” Sarkisian said. “I thought his body has really changed. I thought he had a very good spring for us.”
LOS ANGELES -- USC Trojans true freshman offensive left guard Toa Lobendahn stood in the west end zone of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and wondered if he had really started in the annual spring game on Saturday in front of 17,500 tanning, cardinal and gold-clad fans.

“It was overwhelming. Well, not really overwhelming but joyful,” Lobendahn said moments after completing his first spring game. “It was great being in front of all these fans.”

It’s been quite a spring of learning, performing and adjusting to life on a college campus for Lobendahn, who left La Habra (Calif.) High after the 2013 fall semester of his senior year to enroll in time for spring practice.


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Roundtable: USC spring storylines

February, 19, 2014
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WeAreSC staffers give opinions on topics related to Trojans football:

What storyline will you be most interested to follow in spring ball?

[+] EnlargeWashington's Justin Wilcox
AP Photo/Elaine ThompsonIt should be interesting to see how the USC defense evolves this spring with Justin Wilcox calling the shots.
Garry Paskwietz: I’ll be watching to see how the defense begins to take shape under new coordinator Justin Wilcox. One of the things that worked so well for the Trojans last season was the way the USC defensive personnel fit so smoothly within the 5-2 scheme utilized by former coordinator Clancy Pendergast. Wilcox says he wants to get a look at the USC players on the field to see how their skills fit before he commits to a particular scheme, so it could be a very fluid situation in spring. How does the rotation look along the line, especially with the need to replace George Uko? Who steps up to fill the edge-rush spots at outside linebacker? Will Su’a Cravens be used in much the same way Shaq Thompson was at Washington? These and many other questions will begin to get answered when the Trojans hit the field next month.

Johnny Curren: I’m most interested to see how the new up-tempo offense that USC coach Steve Sarkisian plans to install comes along, and how the current Trojans players adapt to playing in it. Sarkisian has stated before that although fast-paced, it will still essentially be a pro-style, run-first offense, but there are still bound to be several significant differences from USC offenses of the past, and there are plenty of questions heading into the spring that won’t begin to be answered until the team hits the practice field. Will one of the quarterbacks -- Cody Kessler, Max Browne or Jalen Greene -- prove to be particularly adept at directing the new attack? Will the quarterbacks be asked to run more? Will more of an emphasis be placed on throwing to the tight end, as Sarkisian did at Washington, and will Randall Telfer and Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick thrive in the potentially expanded role? Will we see more wideouts involved? Will the fullback really be utilized? Most importantly, though, will it all result in an offense that is more explosive, and in the end, more productive? In less than a month we’ll start to find out.

Greg Katz: The O-line gets top billing here, especially the center position, which is key with the early departure of All-Pac-12 center Marcus Martin to the NFL draft. The candidates or position changes as it pertains to center could be fascinating because it could lead to a domino effect. Keep an eye on redshirt freshman Khaliel Rodgers, who should be a prime candidate for either center or guard. Another sidebar to the offensive line, of course, is the arrival of new coach Tim Drevno from the San Francisco 49ers. Watching his readjustment to college players and what’s available to him should be worth watching at spring practice.

As for an overall view, with a new system and terminology, the logical advantage for returners such as left tackle Chad Wheeler and right tackle Max Tuerk is starting experience. Tuerk, however, is one to keep an eye on to see if he stays at right tackle and is not moved to center. Rehabilitation for guards Jordan Simmons and Aundrey Walker make spring progress tough, but it should make for interesting competition to see how the available bodies fit into Sark’s “puzzle pieces.” What you see in the spring might not be the offensive line you see in the first game against Fresno State.

USC players receive team honors

December, 14, 2013
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Sophomore tailback Javorius "Buck" Allen was named team MVP at the annual end-of-season banquet held Friday night at USC’s Tutor Campus Center Ballroom.

The award winners:
  • Most Valuable Player: Allen
  • Most Inspirational Player: outside linebacker Devon Kennard
  • Trojan Way Leadership Award: Kennard, linebacker Hayes Pullard
  • Linemen of the Year: center Marcus Martin (offense), defensive end Leonard Williams (defense)
  • Perimeter Players of the Year: Allen and wide receiver Nelson Agholor (offense), cornerback Josh Shaw and safety Dion Bailey (defense)
  • Special Teams Player of the Year: fullback Soma Vainuku
  • Service Team Players of the Year: quarterback Conner Sullivan (offense), linebacker Nick Schlossberg (defense)
  • Jack Oakie Rise and Shine Award (longest run): Allen (80 yards vs. California)
  • Howard Jones/Football Alumni Club Academic Award (overall academic achievement): Kennard
  • Bob Chandler Award (underclassman with outstanding athletic ability, academic achievement and character): quarterback Cody Kessler
  • John McKay Award (underclassman with the most competitive spirit): Agholor
  • Joe Collins Walk-on Award: tailback Taylor Ross
  • Courage Award: tight end Randall Telfer, wide receiver Marqise Lee
  • Lifters Award: Kennard, offensive tackle Chad Wheeler
  • Team Captains: Lee, Pullard, Kennard, Martin

3 up, 3 down: USC 20, Stanford 17

November, 17, 2013
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LOS ANGELES -- A look at the positives and negatives from USC’s thrilling 20-17 victory over No. 4 Stanford on Saturday.

Three up
1. Andre Heidari
Having nearly lost his kicking job earlier in the season and having a less-than-memorable outing last weekend against California, Heidari’s fortunes appeared to be spiraling downward when his PAT attempt sailed wide right in the first quarter against Stanford. To his credit, however, he responded valiantly, hitting a key 23-yard field goal in the second quarter, before ultimately nailing a dramatic 47-yard game-winner, completing his transformation from goat to hero, all in one night.

2. USC defense
The Trojans' defense certainly rose to the challenge in this one, limiting the Cardinal to a season-low 17 points. A fast and swarming bunch that was paced by linebacker Anthony Sarao and his 12 tackles. The group showed a ton of heart and determination late, turning back, time and time again, a Stanford offense noted for its physical brand of play at the line of scrimmage. The performance of the safeties was particularly stellar down the stretch, with Dion Bailey and Su’a Cravens each recording clutch interceptions in the fourth quarter.

3. USC team resolve
The Trojans had every opportunity to let the game slip away, but even when their backs were against the wall, they simply refused to give in. That's a credit to the man who has instilled new life into the program, interim coach Ed Orgeron. In addition to the two interceptions by the defense, Chad Wheeler’s momentum-turning blocked field goal and a hobbled Marqise Lee’s improbable 13-yard reception on 4th-and-2 were plays indicative of a team that possesses a fierce will to win. It’s a mindset that has reached new heights under the direction of Orgeron, and it’s a big reason why he just might be USC athletic director Pat Haden’s best choice as the Trojans' next full-time coach. The gritty, never-say-die effort of USC quarterback Cody Kessler -- who completed 25-of-37 passes for 288 yards and one touchdown -- also deserves special mention.

Three down
1. USC run game
Averaging 185.9 rushing yards per game entering Saturday's contest, the Trojans were only able to compile 23 yards on the ground as the vaunted Cardinal defense completely stymied the USC run game. Spearheaded by outside linebacker Trent Murphy and inside linebacker Shayne Skov, the Stanford front seven simply overpowered the USC offensive line for much of the game, and the Trojans tailbacks never had a chance to get going.

2. USC second-half defensive lull
While it’s hard to pinpoint anything negative about a USC defense that played such an integral part in the victory, there were certainly instances in the second half where the Trojans looked to be worn down up front. At no time was this more apparent than early in the third quarter when the Cardinal offense ripped off a ten-play, 92-yard touchdown drive with typical Stanford efficiency. Following Wheeler’s blocked field goal on the following Cardinal possession, however, the USC defense appeared to get a burst of energy back that carried it through the rest of the contest.

3. USC pass coverage
Continuing a trend that has existed throughout the season, the cornerbacks struggled at times in coverage on Saturday night. Fortunately for the Trojans, however, Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan and his receivers had problems of their own, and they were never able to really capitalize on any of the opportunities presented to them. The most obvious example of this occurred on Stanford’s opening drive when Ty Montgomery, who had blown by USC cornerback Josh Shaw, dropped a perfect toss from Hogan deep downfield. Hogan also missed an open Montgomery on a long pass in the third quarter.
LOS ANGELES -- It shouldn’t be this difficult.

When you have a defense playing as well as USC’s is this season, it shouldn’t be losing to Washington State and having to struggle to a hang-onto-your-fingernails victory over Utah State, both at home, no less.

[+] EnlargeCody Kessler
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsUSC quarterback Cody Kessler could have a big day against Cal's porous pass defense.
The Trojans might have the most deceiving 3-1 record in college football at the moment, considering they haven’t played a quality opponent on the road yet and two of their three victories have come against marshmallow soft Hawaii and Boston College.

What their most recent 17-14 escape proved is that defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast’s almost unbelievably-revived defense is good enough to keep USC in every football game the rest of the way.

But will it matter if the offense can’t shake off the cobwebs that seem to have completely engulfed it?

The screams for coach Lane Kiffin’s job calmed down a bit after a semi-soothing win over BC, but they were back at full roar late Saturday. The reaction is understandable, since it is Kiffin who remains in charge of the sluggish offense, not to mention the play-calling that remains as puzzling as ever.

The undercurrent of dissatisfaction has actually reached out even dangerously deeper than to just the fan base. The Trojans’ list of early 2014 commitments is lagging far behind past seasons, with hardly any four- or five-star kids on the list.

Kiffin might still be able to turn that momentum around, of course, if he can find some way to juice up an offense that could never find its rhythm against Utah State. Tre Madden ran decently enough at tailback, but the running game was never complemented by play-action passes.

At least the Trojans throw downfield occasionally now, but almost always to Marqise Lee exclusively, which would be fine if it was the old, Biletnikoff Award-winning Marqise. The problem is, he hasn’t shown up yet this season.

The scary part is Utah State spent most of the game single-covering Lee and Nelson Agholor, and Kiffin still couldn’t figure out a way to let Cody Kessler take advantage of it. Some of it has to do with an offensive line that simply isn’t up to USC standards. But then, what do you expect from a kid like left tackle Chad Wheeler, who hadn’t played a down of college football until four weeks ago?

It’s too bad, because with just some normal offensive help, Pendergast’s defense would be getting the national recognition it so richly deserves.


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Lane Kiffin conference call highlights

September, 23, 2013
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Here are some selected quotes from USC head coach Lane Kiffin’s Sunday night conference call following the Trojans’ 17-14 victory over Utah State.

On USC’s defense and special teams:

“I think that the highlight of the game was the play of our defense and our special teams at times. We had relentless pressure on a great quarterback. … I thought Devon Kennard was relentless all day in his pursuit of Chuckie [Keeton], [and] Leonard Williams had some outstanding plays, Morgan Breslin also. I’m pleased with our progression on defense with the new challenge that was presented to us this week with a different offense than we had gone against.”

On the performance of the USC offense:

“On offense we left a lot of yards and points out there. It became a day where, after the beginning of the game, they committed to stopping the run, and when you get into a man-to-man game like that at that point, we’ve got to make our plays when they’re there to be made, especially in the passing game, and we did not do that. We had four drops on the day, after a game of having no drops the week before. And credit them too. That’s a stingy defense that plays well, and a tough team that plays really well. Remember, they were 11-2 last year, and five points away from being 13-0. … So, we’re 3-1, back to work, and getting ready for a very good team, and a big challenge for us to go on the road this week.”

On whether Kiffin has thought about going in a different direction offensively:

“We’re always looking at those things. … You know, up-tempo is the way to go for a majority of college teams nowadays, but we’re not in the same position as everybody else. To go up-tempo, for us, with our scholarship limitations and the players that we have, it would be very difficult for us to lengthen games. Our defensive players basically played every snap … last night it was 70 plays. That’s going to go up to 85 to 90 plays, [and] you know, we’re playing last night with four scholarship receivers in that game. … I think it would be very difficult to move to an up-tempo offense with our scholarship limitations.”

On the status of Cody Kessler, who had ice on his hand following the game, as well as Marqise Lee, who briefly went to the sideline with an apparent ankle injury:

“We expect both guys to be fine. Cody’s [injury] did happen early in the game. I think you do see a difference after that happened in his accuracy and his ability to grip the ball.”

On the play of the offensive line, and whether there’s any one common denominator that he’s picked up on in regard to their struggles against Utah State:

“I’m not going to get into any specific players, we were just playing extremely inconsistent up front yesterday.”

On his initial impressions of Arizona State, and whether he thinks that having gone up against the Utah State offense will help the defense in their preparation for the Sun Devils:

“I think that it was good to have a no-huddle, hurry-up offense to line up against because we know we’re going to have to do that next week. Arizona State really rallied versus a great team in Stanford, and ended the game with a really good fourth quarter … they’ve got great players on that team on both sides of the ball. The quarterback is playing really well, and they have the defensive player of the year [Will Sutton].”

Is Arizona State’s defensive front, headlined by Sutton, a concern considering that the performance of the USC offensive line was inconsistent against Utah State?

“Yeah, we’re going to play against some really great players throughout this year on the defensive line -- some of the best in the country. We just played one yesterday -- No. 9 [Kyler Fackrell]. We’ll play Sutton and there’s a bunch more to come, so we’re going to have to improve.”

On whether Kiffin thinks that Chad Wheeler, who is in his first year as a starter at left tackle, will have a tough challenge on his hands given who is coming up:

“Sure, he just had a war on his hands last night. And obviously when you screw up as a left tackle, you get seen a lot … you know, on the sack, caused fumble, but there’s some really great plays in there too where those two guys battled against each other. He obviously got beat on the play, but for a lot of the time he held his own.”

On the Trojans’ struggles on third down this season -- USC has successfully converted on just 14 of 51 third downs:

“We’ve been inconsistent on a number of third downs. Third downs come down to one-on-one matchups and doing the right thing, and some kind of freak things have happened too. You know, in the Wildcat, which has been 100 percent for us, [Tre Madden] unfortunately dropped the snap, which has never happened before with him. And we were very inconsistent in the passing game on third down. So, we’re going to have to improve.”

On the fact that USC has only scored one third-quarter touchdown in the last seven games:

“That’s not a good stat. We haven’t done real well in the third quarter for some reason this season, but we’ve done really well in the second quarter on offense. We’ve done great in the first quarter on defense -- we haven’t given up a point all year in the first quarter. … So, for whatever reason in the second quarter and fourth quarter we’ve been better on offense, so we have to play better in all four quarters.”

Inside the Coliseum locker room 

September, 21, 2013
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LOS ANGELES -- Notes, quotes, and anecdotes from the Coliseum after the Trojans (3-1, 0-1 Pac-12) defeated Utah State (2-2, 1-0 MWC) by a score of 17-14.

USC head coach Lane Kiffin

Opening statement: “We knew it was a really good team we were going to play. Anytime you have a great player at quarterback (Chuckie Keeton) like they do, it’s going to be hard to take him out of the game. Their defense has played really tough and really physical.”

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USC lineman Martin puts team first

September, 19, 2013
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Making the full-time transition from guard to center just last spring, Marcus Martin certainly doesn’t appear to be going through any growing pains in his first season as the starter at the new position. Anchoring an offensive line which spearheads a USC rushing attack that averages 196 yards per game, the 6-foot-3 and 310-pound junior has been one of the unit’s most sturdy contributors.

In fact, Martin is coming off what was arguably his best performance of the young season against Boston College -- an impressive feat considering he wasn’t 100 percent healthy in the days leading up to the matchup, and even during the game itself, suffering from flu-like symptoms.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Martin
Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY SportsUSC's Marcus Martin could fill a future need for the Lions at center.
“I was dealing with nausea, headaches ... stuff like that,” said Martin, who has started 23 times for the Trojans. “I just had to play through it. I knew that I had to tough it out for the team.”

With that selfless, team-first mentality driving him, Martin has continually shown the ability to overcome virtually every obstacle that has stood in his way, including just this past August late in fall camp when he fought through an undisclosed knee injury.

“I’ve got to grind for my family, and the Trojans are my family,” said Martin, who along with his teammates, will face a talented Utah State team this Saturday in the Coliseum. “I love these guys with all of my heart and soul, and these are the guys that I look out for. So, it doesn’t matter if I’m hurt, it doesn’t matter if I’m sick, I’ve got to play for my team. That’s just what I do.”

It’s that determined mindset, on top of the fact that he took on a visibly more active vocal presence during the offseason, that helped establish Martin as a natural selection as a team captain following fall camp -- a role he has embraced wholeheartedly. Following the Trojans’ 10-7 loss to Washington State, Martin was one of the veterans who made a concerted effort to ensure that the team regrouped and maintained focus on the task at hand. And even now, after USC’s 35-7 bounce-back victory over Boston College, Martin hasn’t let up, especially when it comes to the offensive line corps.

“I’m just trying to keep guys together, keep the cohesion there and keep the family-like atmosphere going,” said Martin, who is part of a starting group that also includes Max Tuerk at left guard, Chad Wheeler at left tackle, Aundrey Walker at right guard and Kevin Graf at right tackle. “That’s what you want on the offensive line. It has to be five guys together.”

Under the direction of Mike Summers, who was added to the Trojans coaching staff in February, and James Cregg, the offensive has begun to gel and perform at a high level, keying an offensive attack that has relied more heavily upon a physical ground game than in recent years.

“The offensive line is really starting to come together well,” Martin said. “We’re starting to get a really good push on the guys, and holes are starting to open up, and that’s really encouraging. It just makes us go harder in practice, it makes us sharpen up our technique, and it’s encouraging for the next week.”

But as Martin is well aware, the offensive line still isn’t quite where it needs to be just yet. Having allowed six sacks so far this season, the group has had its share of lapses in production on passing plays, the majority of which have been caused by communication breakdowns.

“We’re still working out the kinks in communication,” Martin said. “You can always get better when it comes to communication ... that can improve every week, and that is something that we’re trying to improve.”

Still, the USC offensive line has shown enough promise -- particularly in terms of run blocking -- to warrant more than a fair amount of optimism. And with Martin leading the way, so long as they continue to develop and build off of the strong outings they’ve already had, this could be the start of something special.

“It always starts up front,” Martin said. “As long as these five guys come together and do what we’re supposed to do, it’s going to be a beautiful year.”
As the offensive line goes, so go the 2013 USC Trojans.

That was the feeling of many coming into the season as USC coach Lane Kiffin talked about a renewed sense of wanting to control the line of scrimmage. The fact that the Trojans had five experienced starters returning, along with a deep group of running backs, fostered a feeling of optimism for success if the line could come together.

Kiffin showed how important the line was when he brought in veteran offensive line coach Mike Summers and paired him with existing position coach James Cregg to double up the duties up front. There was also some shuffling in the starting lineup during fall camp with Chad Wheeler moving into the left tackle spot and Aundrey Walker transitioning to right guard to share time with John Martinez.

Through the first three games of the season, the results have shown good progress, particularly in the run game. The Trojans have averaged 43 rushing attempts per game and are just short of 200-yards per game on the ground.

“There is some good stuff going on up there with the offensive line,” Kiffin said. “I really feel like the decisions made in January -- our staff decisions, scheme decisions and practice decisions to be more physical -- are paying off.”

While the run game has been consistently good, there is still room for improvement with pass protection and penalties but those areas would expect to be addressed in the coming weeks as the line continues to gel with the new lineup.

“Run blocking is going really well,” USC right tackle Kevin Graf said. “Pass blocking, we really haven’t gotten to do that much, it’s weird. We keep on doing so well with the run that we rarely pass it. We’ve been practicing like this since spring ball. We really put an emphasis on running the ball and it makes us look a little more nasty.”

Of course, any offensive lineman will tell you they love run blocking, especially those linemen who have been around the USC program in recent years when the ground game often took a back seat to the aerial circus of the Matt Barkley era.

“You gotta like it a lot,” Graf said. “When you run the ball as much as we have, it’s a lot of fun, especially for the O-line. We love getting off the line and we love hitting people, that’s what we like to do. We just have to keep on doing it. You can’t do it one game and then the next game not be able to do it. We just need to be consistent and make sure we’re doing it every game.”

As consistently good as the run game has been, the pass blocking has been inconsistent and there have been issues with drive-stopping penalties as well. These issues often involve breakdowns in communication, something that usually takes time to develop for a line that only came together midway through fall camp.

“Our ability to communicate is very important,” Graf said. “If you don’t have that communication, the offensive line doesn’t work. It’s the only position where you have to have five guys doing the right thing at the right time so to be able to communicate is something you need. If you mess that up, you’ll see it. You’ll see mistakes and you’ll see bad games out of us.”

So far the line has made good progress through three games and they will look to keep that up against the next opponent, Utah State, which offers a strong challenge for a Trojans team looking to end a stretch of three home games on a high note. The Aggies -- who won 11 games last season -- are known for their dynamic quarterback Chuckie Keeton and are ranked No. 13 in the nation in total defense (286-yards per game).

“They’re a good team, a really good team,” Graf said. “Their front seven is really strong, powerful guys. They are a very impressive defense, it’s not just their offense. It’s gonna be a great test for us.”

Lane Kiffin conference call highlights

September, 16, 2013
9/16/13
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Here are some selected quotes from USC head coach Lane Kiffin’s Sunday night conference call following the Trojans’ 35-7 victory over Boston College.

Opening comments:

“It was just really a great day for our players and fans after the week that they’d been through. I just really was excited for them, and I really saw a lot of emotion in the players throughout the game. … As I said after the game, I really feel like the decisions made in January -- our staff decisions, schematical decisions and practice decisions -- are paying off.”

On the performance of the USC defense:

“Our first defense, they go two weeks in a row now where they’ve only given up one field goal. You really can’t play much better than that.”

On the play of the USC running backs:

“I thought all the backs ran really well. All four backs averaged over 5 1/2 yards a carry each. Justin [Davis] had two really special runs. Unfortunately, he had another long run that was called back on a penalty. Otherwise, he’s well over 100 [yards] on the day, and over 10 yards a carry. And Tre [Madden], three games in a row over one hundred yards -- you can’t start much better than that. Unfortunately, he put the ball on the ground for the first time this year toward the end of the second quarter. Luckily we got that back and we were able to not turn the ball over the entire day.”

On the improvement of the USC offense on third downs (5-of-10 on third-down conversions) against Boston College, and the play of quarterback Cody Kessler:

“We started slow again on third downs, but really had a good second half with that, and that came from the efficiency of running the ball well and completing balls. You know, when you complete … whatever that is … almost 90 percent of your passes, that’s going to help in those situations. It’s kind of amazing that [Kessler’s] first pass was incomplete, his last was incomplete, and he completed the 15 in between. … So, really a good day by him, and then Max Wittek came in and played well.”

Kiffin’s thoughts on the performance of the offensive line:

“There is some good stuff going on up there. The left tackle (Chad Wheeler) played really well in his third college game, and he’s going to be a special player. … Max Tuerk played really well. Max and Marcus [Martin] had actually been really sick the last part of the week there, including during the game. So, they kind of sucked it up and went out there and played on a hot day, and it was good to see. And Kevin Graf played well too.”

On where the offensive line is in terms of their cohesiveness and communication-- there were two instances where Boston College defenders appeared to come in untouched due to a breakdown up front:

“Both were communication issues on the right side. We’d like to play perfect, but we didn’t.”

On the strong production of the USC ground attack so far this season, particularly with last season’s leading rusher, Silas Redd, sidelined with an injury:

“I think it’s strange … if you would have said that really the only two running backs with experience, not just [Redd] but D.J. Morgan -- neither of those guys have been available to play for us. I think it speaks to those other guys working hard, stepping up and seizing the opportunity. And hopefully Silas will play this week.”

On the status of Darreus Rogers, who appeared to be injured against Boston College:

“Darreus wasn’t able to finish the game. We hope that he plays this week for us. De’Von Flournoy stepped up and had a catch in there, Victor Blackwell played a few snaps, so that’s what we got.”

On the Trojans’ 10 penalties on Saturday:

“I thought we did a really good job for the most part of not having penalties, especially the week before. We unfortunately had some yesterday … some poor decisions. We made some poor decisions sometimes there on holding penalties and then on two roughing-the-passers. Those are big penalties … we’ve got to fix that.”

On the impact that running backs coach Tommie Robinson has had in his first season at USC:

“I think he’s done a really good job with a very inexperienced group -- the two experienced guys have been down the whole season. To get those guys ready to play as well as they’re doing, and all of those guys going over 5 yards a carry in the game … he’s done a great job with them. “

When a group is playing as well as the USC defense has been as of late, is it difficult to keep them motivated at times? And what does the coaching staff do to keep them on track?

“We stay really hard on them. There is stuff to improve on. They’re going to have a cut-up film ready for them at 6:30 in the morning when they come in here to talk to them about. … We haven’t really been challenged yet that much comparable to what’s coming. Coming down the road there’s some high-octane offenses coming in, and it starts this Saturday. This is a huge test. This is a really, really good football team coming in here, and a great dynamic quarterback.”

On what Utah State quarterback Chuckie Keeton brings to the table:

“He does everything. I think he’s like the guy up in Seattle. You can’t tackle him, he runs around, makes every throw, doesn’t seem to get rattled, plays great in big games … he’s just a real special player.”

Five things to watch: USC at Hawaii 

August, 29, 2013
8/29/13
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LOS ANGELES -- As the USC Trojans kick off their 125th season of college football Thursday night at Hawaii’s Aloha Stadium, everybody wants to know if this is the beginning of the end for head coach Lane Kiffin’s or the end of the beginning. While that evaluation will be a season-long drama, the island opener provides some intrigue and scrutiny.

Here are five areas to watch as the game unfolds, which may be a foreshadowing of things to come:

1. The quarterbacks: That’s right, not since the 1995 Brad Otton/Kyle Wachholtz Trojans, a team that eventually defeated Northwestern in the 1996 Rose Bowl, have the cardinal and gold opened with such an ongoing quarterback dilemma. The real pregame excitement is who will take the first snap in Hawaii, and how will Kiffin divide up the playing time?

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As the Trojans continue game week preparations for Hawaii, here is a look at some of the key topics from fall camp.

QB battle: So it appears as if the Trojans will be splitting time at the quarterback spot against Hawaii. Lane Kiffin is playing his cards so close to the vest on this one that he won’t even decide who will start the game until the team lands in Hawaii on Tuesday night. The good news is that all the hoopla will come to an end on Thursday night, once the actual game begins. Either Cody Kessler or Max Wittek will jog onto the field for the opening possession, and that will be that. How things progress from there depends on Kiffin, who eventually either will pick a starter or continue with the two-headed role.

[+] EnlargeJustin Davis
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsTrue freshman Justin Davis could get a lot of work against Hawaii as the Trojans deal with injuries.
Depth issue at tailback: The Trojans came into camp with six tailbacks, but injuries limited five of those backs at various points. Kiffin already has said Silas Redd -- the projected starter -- might not play against Hawaii as he continues to rehab from a spring knee injury. If Tre Madden is healthy, don’t be surprised if he gets a lot of work, along with Justin Davis and Buck Allen. Madden and Davis did some good things in camp, while Allen stayed healthy and got a lot of work. Ty Isaac could be in that mix, as well. D.J. Morgan did not play in camp due to injury.

Big 3 at receiver: There has been a lot of discussion about the lack of depth for the Trojans at the wide receiver spot. With offseason injuries to George Farmer and Steven Mitchell, the Trojans suited up only five scholarship receivers for fall camp, where it seemed like all five took turns getting banged up. The good news is that the season is starting with the top three players available in the rotation in Marqise Lee, Nelson Agholor and Darreus Rogers. Even if that is the extent of depth at the position for the opener, you would be hard pressed to find a better trio of receivers lining up for any team in the nation.

Wheeler takes over: There wasn’t a more surprising development in spring than to see Chad Wheeler take over at left tackle when Aundrey Walker went out for a few days due to injury. Wheeler, who had seen limited practice time in his USC career due to shoulder and knee issues, settled in quickly, and by time Walker returned, Wheeler had shown enough to stay, so Walker was put at right guard.

Hope Abe is able to play: If there is any football karma out there for Abe Markowitz, it stands to reason he will get a chance for some extended playing time against Hawaii. Markowitz played at Punahou High School in Honululu and would love nothing more than to play in Aloha Stadium in front of the home crowd after being forced to miss the Trojans' trip to Hawaii in 2010 due to an injury suffered the week of the game. Markowitz, who returned to the team as a walk-on this fall after missing spring ball, is a reserve center and guard in his sixth-year of eligibility.

Dominant pair: It has been a long time since the Trojans had a duo of interior defensive linemen as good as Leonard Williams and George Uko. Remember the days of Shaun Cody and Mike Patterson? Those two formed a pretty impressive wall in the middle of the USC line, and the current pair has a chance to do some special things of their own. Kiffin has said Williams is the kind of player normally found in the middle of top-flight SEC lines, while he also said Uko -- and Devon Kennard -- were two players who brought consistent championship work ethic to fall camp.

[+] EnlargeMorgan Breslin
AP Photo/Chris SzagolaMorgan Breslin hasn't dressed for practice since suffering an ankle injury more than two weeks ago.
Missing Morgan: The Trojans suffered a lot of injuries during fall camp, with as many as 23 players sitting out of a given practice. Most of the injuries were relatively minor, but one that has lasted is the injury to outside linebacker Morgan Breslin. When Morgan first went out more than two weeks ago, it was an apparent ankle injury that didn’t look to be a problem. However, that Breslin hasn’t suited up since. He is a critical weapon for the USC pass rush, and the Trojans will be looking to get him back in action as soon as possible.

Rotation in secondary: Judging by the depth chart released by Kiffin over the weekend, there doesn’t seem to be much settled in the way of a rotation in the secondary. All four spots had “OR” designations to indicate that no starter had been selected yet. This might not be a bad thing at the two safety spots, as the Trojans appear to go three-deep at both spots. Kiffin said the corner position will have Kevon Seymour, Anthony Brown and Torin Harris as the top three in that rotation.

Solid addition: The Trojans got a verbal commitment last Friday from ESPN 300 DE/OLB Malik Dorton from St. John Bosco of Bellflower (Calif). Dorton (6-foot-2, 235) is known as a run-stopping defensive end who likely will play outside linebacker in the USC 5-2 defensive scheme. He becomes the eighth verbal commit for the Trojans in the class of 2014.

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