USC Trojans: Max Tuerk

WeAreSC Roundtable: Stanford preview 

September, 3, 2014
Sep 3
11:00
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WeAreSC staffers discuss topics relating to USC's game at Stanford on Saturday.

Key to the game

LOS ANGELES -- As USC Trojans starting junior center Max Tuerk knows full well, executing a shotgun snap to his quarterback, is more than meets the eye. It's tantamount to playing the old game of Blind Man's Bluff.

"It takes repetition," said Tuerk, previously a former two-year Trojans starter at either guard or tackle. "The more repetition you have in a live drill against a live defense the better.


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LOS ANGELES -- Almost everyone agrees that a reconstructed and heavily scrutinized offensive line will be key to the USC Trojans' success this season.

The responsibility for this unit rests with new offensive line coach Tim Drevno. The first-year coach has been working with his players individually after practice during this first week of training camp.

"I think the biggest thing is to get back into the playbook and get our physicality back, get great communication up front, start to address the starting five, and try to find the sixth, seventh, and eighth guy," said Drevno, who was the assistant offensive line coach last season with the San Francisco 49ers.

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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

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Roundtable: Future award winners

June, 23, 2014
Jun 23
7:00
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With many postseason awards coming out with their watch lists, here are our thoughts on which members of the USC football team are most likely to win the following awards at some point in their career.

Heisman Trophy

Garry Paskwietz: Javorius "Buck" Allen. Every so often there is an aura around a player when he is “the man,” and Allen has that right now with the Trojans. The players knew what he could do before he got his chance, and they know how special he was once he finally got on the field. He has bulked up in preparation of carrying a bigger load, and he has the combination of quickness as a runner and good pass-catching ability to put up huge numbers.

[+] EnlargeUSC
Steve Dykes/Getty ImagesJavorius "Buck" Allen had four 100-yard rushing efforts in USC's final six games in 2013.
Johnny Curren: Allen. After breaking out over the second half of the 2013 season, Allen looks to be in even better physical shape this summer. And as everyone saw last year with Bishop Sankey at Washington, Sarkisian’s offense definitely provides the opportunity for a tailback to put up big numbers.

Greg Katz: Allen. If Sark gets the same type of production out of Allen that he did with Sankey at Washington and the Trojans do well, the Florida native has a chance at the big one.

Davey O'Brien Award

GP: Max Browne. With all due respect to Cody Kessler, who I believe is the right quarterback for the Trojans right now, I think it is Browne who has the best chance to eventually achieve this kind of national honor. Max has very good throwing skills when it comes to touch and accuracy, and he is only building on those while he is waiting his turn.

JC: Kessler. After showing promise last year during a tumultuous season, Kessler has the potential to thrive in 2014 while directing an up-tempo offense that figures to really rack up yardage while also putting up more points.

GK: Browne. Kessler will have a fine career, but when Browne finally steps in with knowledge of the new offense, watch out.

Doak Walker Award

GP: Allen. He has the total package to be in the mix.

JC: Allen. Again, with what he’s show as of late, Allen just might find himself in the running for this award, either in 2014 or 2015.

GK: Allen. If “Buck” continues to improve dramatically and the Trojans’ offensive line can improve each game, Allen could become a national household name.

Biletnikoff Award

GP: Nelson Agholor: One of the key traits that Agholor inherited from Robert Woods and Marqise Lee was preparation, and his work ethic set the tone for the Trojans in spring ball. When you combine that with his game-breaking ability, this award is certainly within his reach.

JC: Agholor. After waiting his turn behind both Woods and Lee, Agholor is the featured wideout at USC now, and it’s a role that he’s more than ready to take on. Having led the team with 918 receiving yards in 2013, he already has proven himself on the field, and now with more passes coming his way, he could really explode in 2014.

GK: Agholor. He can be just as explosive as Lee, in his own way. It’s a matter of consistency and his quarterback.

Mackey Award

GP: Bryce Dixon. He comes to USC with the ability to be a unique athlete at the tight spot. He reminds me a little of former Trojan Mackey Award winner Fred Davis. Maybe not as powerful as Davis but a similar kind of pass-catching weapon.

JC: Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick. Cope-Fitzpatrick had an outstanding spring, catching virtually everything thrown in his direction. Whether it’s this year or next, he just might have the ability to light up the stat sheet in an offense that allowed Austin Seferian-Jenkins, who won this award in 2013, to really flourish at Washington.

GK: Dixon. This kid has the potential to be someone special at tight end. If he can block as well as he can catch and run, he could leave Troy as one of the great ones.

[+] EnlargeLeonard Williams
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsDefensive end Leonard Williams posted 73 tackles and six sacks last season.
Outland Trophy

GP: Leonard Williams. I am starting to look at Williams the way I looked at Shaun Cody in the middle of the USC D-line. Just a special talent who raised the level of play around him and was a great teammate while doing it. I wouldn’t put any limits on what he can accomplish next year.

JC: Williams. Predicted by many to be a top-10 pick in next year’s NFL draft, there’s little doubt that Williams is one of the top linemen in all of college football. It will be interesting to see just how much further he can take his game in the coming months, and if he continues to make strides, this is an award that is definitely within reach.

GK: Williams. The stars are all aligned for Williams to achieve a lineman’s highest honor. Only one Trojan has done it before (OL Ron Yary, 1967) and if Leonard takes this award he’ll always be remembered as one of the legendary Trojans defensive linemen.

Lombardi Award

GP: Viane Talamaivao. You don’t find too many offensive linemen with this combination of size, strength and athleticism. Viane has taken reps at center and both guards spots so far in summer workouts and has looked comfortable in each setting so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see some early contributions this year.

JC: Williams. Again, if it all comes together for Williams on the field in 2014, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see honor after honor come his way.

GK: Max Tuerk. The combination of brains, brawn and nasty to go along with his experience puts Max in a position to be only the second Trojan to win the award. If Tuerk can produce like former Trojans Lombardi winner OG Brad Budde (1979), he stands a shot.

Butkus Award

GP: Hayes Pullard. As a productive three-year starter, Pullard is on the verge of putting together one of the more impressive statistical careers we’ve ever seen from a USC linebacker -- and that is saying something. As the unquestioned leader of a group that could be very good this year, he has a chance to get the kind of spotlight needed for the award.

JC: Pullard. Having led the Trojans in tackles in two of the past three seasons, Pullard has already established himself as one of the conference’s top linebackers.

GK: Pullard. There is something about Pullard from one season to another that seems to cry out for recognition. Hayes is a preseason All-American and should the Trojans defense live up to expectations, Pullard will be having a whale of a season.

Thorpe Award

GP: Su'a Cravens. I’m going to go with Cravens on this one, and the main reason I pick him ahead of Leon McQuay III or Adoree’ Jackson (aside from his overwhelming physical skills) is primarily because I think Su’a has a head start and would be the first of the three to win. All three are capable, but I can see Cravens bursting on the national scene this year and setting the stage for a strong run at the award in 2015.

JC: Jackson. I know, I know… way too early to be talking about big-time honors for a player who has yet to take a snap in college. But from what I saw of him on the high school level, as well as in the early workouts at USC this summer, Jackson is a uniquely talented athlete who has the potential to do some special things at USC.

GK: Cravens. The second coming of Ronnie Lott/Troy Polamalu? It would be hard to say that Cravens didn’t live up to all the hype in his freshman season. Yes, he got injured and that slowed his progress, but he showed enough stuff to warrant great expectations. If he did what he did as a true freshman, what’s he going to look like as a junior?
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.”
1. When USC finished practice Tuesday, center Max Tuerk and quarterback Cody Kessler stayed behind to work on snaps. Tuerk, a junior, has started 14 games at guard and six at tackle. But the Trojans need a center, so he’s learning the position this spring. He learned to tape his fingers -- two rings of tape on two fingers, one ring of tape on the other two -- and to carry a towel, all to keep sweat off the ball. He has learned to stay lower and, as he put it, get his feet in the ground faster. “The more reps you take, you don’t have to think about the snap as much,” Tuerk said. “You can think about the blocks.”

2. UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley is working more under center this spring. “It’s different,” the redshirt junior said. “Being under center and being in the shotgun are two different views. When you are under center, you are right there….You have to take your seven-step drop, push up in the pocket while keeping your shoulders (level).” If Hundley has a peccadillo, it is maintaining the balance of his shoulders. UCLA coach Jim Mora said he wants to work Hundley under center to expand the offense. If it helps Hundley in the 2015 NFL Draft, even better.

3. Stanford wide receiver Jordan Pratt will be 29 years old when the football season begins. He enrolled after spending eight seasons pitching in the Dodgers’ minor-league system. “I’ll make a comment, ‘Yeah, I remember, Sept. 11, 2001, I got called out of my high school class,’” Pratt said. His teammates respond, “‘High school? I don’t even remember that. I was in preschool.’ There is this time gap. Sometimes I relate better to the TAs in my class than I do the other students. It’s a lot easier for me to talk to the professors. It’s a little easier for them to relate, too.”
LOS ANGELES -- They are USC football’s MVRs: Most Valuable Roommates.

Cody Kessler and Max Tuerk are two blossoming leaders on offense for a Trojans team making a dramatic transition from an old-fashioned, take-your-time approach to a new-wave, hurry-up, blur of a style.

Tuerk and Kessler are right there in the chaotic middle of the mad rush, both on the field and off.

[+] EnlargeCody Kessler, Max Tuerk
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesCenter Max Tuerk and quarterback Cody Kessler often study film together at their off-campus apartment.
Tuerk, the new center, and Kessler, the incumbent quarterback, have already spent hours developing a rapport both at practice, where Tuerk is constantly working on shotgun snaps to Kessler, and at home, where they share an apartment two blocks from campus with wide receiver Nelson Agholor.

“I think living together makes it easier for both Cody and me,” Tuerk said, “because we’re always together, whether it’s just hanging out, playing video games or going out to get something to eat.”

Kessler grew up in Bakersfield loving country music. Tuerk, from the larger, more urban Orange County, has the same musical taste. “Yeah, I love country,” Tuerk said.

“We’re trying to get Nelson in on that, too,” said Kessler, laughing. “But he’s not buying into it.”

What they’re all buying into is new head coach Steve Sarkisian’s rapid tempo, designed to generate more plays and, they all hope, more touchdowns per game.

Kessler obviously is a key figure as the quarterback with the most experience on the roster. Happily for everyone involved, the personable junior has had little trouble adjusting. He seems to be thriving in Sarkisian’s no-huddle atmosphere.

Tuerk, on the other hand, is making a major position change. After playing and starting at both tackle and guard his first two seasons for the Trojans, the 285-pound lineman from Santa Margarita High was moved to center at the start of spring practice. No big deal -- after not having snapped a ball in his life, all he's being asked to do is fill the cleats of smooth Marcus Martin, an All-Pac-12 standout who left a year early for the NFL draft.

It sounds intimidating, except nothing seems to overwhelm Tuerk, who has calmly moved over a spot or two on the offensive line and settled in as if he’d been playing there all his life.

“I love it,” Tuerk said. “I think I’ve adjusted and I feel really good at center. The more reps I get, the more comfortable I feel. So far, I’ve been enjoying it a lot. I especially like calling out the blocking schemes before every play. The way it works is, Cody gets the call from the sideline, he repeats it to me, then I try to read the linebackers and the defensive linemen and make my call.”

When they’re not working on it on the field, they’re busy talking about it in their apartment.

“The cool thing is we watch a lot of film together,” Kessler said. “We’re always talking about what we can do to get better.”

Said Tuerk: “I’m pretty competitive, and I don’t like it when I make mistakes. Cody is great about that. He’s always telling me if there is a mistake that I should forget about it and go on to the next play.”

Added Kessler: “I think Max is doing a great job so far. He is feeling a lot more relaxed out there. The nice thing about us rooming together is that we can get in extra work. This past Sunday, Max, Nelson and I came out here and worked for an hour and a half. Max was snapping the ball to me and Nelson ran routes. It’s nice to be able to do that whenever you want.”

It’s nice to be able to kick back and relax at home, too.

“Yeah, that’s working out really well,” Tuerk said. “Cody and I, we’re both pretty loose. We just seem to get along.”

Not that they aren’t serious about the task at hand.

“It’s pretty much a perfect situation with us,” Kessler said. “We have the same goals -- to win a lot of games and to someday play at the next level.”

In the meantime, somebody cue the country music. Maybe a little Brad Paisley or Taylor Swift to play in the background.

The Trojans’ two MVRs seem more than happy to be working on a new winning groove.

Roundtable: USC offensive line progress

March, 27, 2014
Mar 27
11:00
AM PT
WeAreSC staffers give their thoughts on the progress of the USC offensive line in spring ball.

Garry Paskwietz: I think there are several observations that can be made about the line right now. First off, the coaches seem to be pleased with the move of Max Tuerk to center. There were fumbling issues last season when Tuerk had an audition at center, but those were usually with the quarterback under center. There have not been any issues this spring with the quarterback in the shotgun in new coach Steve Sarkisian’s offense. This is no small item with the importance of the center position on the line and Tuerk offers a chance to put arguably your best lineman in that spot.

Toa Lobendahn
Blair Angulo/ESPNEarly enrollee Toa Lobendahn, who was ranked No. 116 in the 2014 ESPN 300, could see immediate playing time for the Trojans.
It’s also clear that Toa Lobendahn has made an early impression as Sarkisian has praised his preparation and maturity. Lobendahn was the backup to Tuerk at center originally but he has seen time at left guard in recent days and could get a longer look there as spring goes along. Chad Wheeler seems set at left tackle, which is no surprise, and guys such as Zach Banner, Khaliel Rodgers, Giovanni Di Poalo and Nathan Guertler have all shown pretty well so far. Banner is raving about his increased flexibility after surgery on both hips last year.

Johnny Curren: While the lack of depth is a concern, overall the offensive line has exceeded my expectations this spring. Tim Drevno has his unit playing physically and as a cohesive unit.

Although it came as a bit of a surprise, the move of Tuerk to center appears to have stabilized the unit. The most experienced, and arguably most talented returner, he’s established himself as the anchor of the group.

Wheeler has been steady at left tackle, and Rodgers has really asserted himself as a legitimate candidate to assume a starting role at right guard. Nathan Guertler has had a productive spring as well as the primary starter at right tackle. Overlooked heading into the March and April workouts, I think he has really made a statement with his play that he can be a factor in the competition for the No. 1 job there. Speaking of which, Banner ran with the second unit behind Guertler on Tuesday, and as he gets more and more reps after missing the majority of last season, I think he’s going to make this a heated position battle to keep your eye on.

I really liked the move of Lobendahn into the starting lineup at left guard on Tuesday. He’s a unique talent at guard and center, and if his performance and growth this spring is any sign of things to come, he has a very bright future. It’s nice to see his primary competition at guard, Di Paolo, having arguably the best spring of his career.

With all that said, with what this group has shown so far this spring with less-than-ideal numbers, I think that this unit has the potential to develop into something very special down the line when injured contributors such as Jordan Simmons, Nico Falah and Aundrey Walker return, as well as when talented incoming freshmen Viane Talamaivao, Damien Mama and Chris Brown jump into the mix.

Greg Katz: Until the return of Walker and Simmons and the eventual summer arrival of those heralded incoming freshmen, we really won’t know how the offensive line will eventually line up against Fresno State in the season opener.

However, at this point in the spring, it appears that Tuerk will be the starter at center, and he has been endorsed by none other than his roommate and incumbent quarterback Cody Kessler. The key right now is finding the right backup for Tuerk.

Keep an eye on all-purpose senior Di Poalo, who is being given a final opportunity to show he can be in the rotation as a center or guard, if called upon. This could be a real heartwarming senior story if it works out for him.

Next are the two guard positions. Given the lack of current depth, it is no surprise that Rodgers has been given the first shot, and it appears that the Delaware native hasn’t disappointed in his nasty style of play. Obviously all eyes are on Lobendahn, who has been singled out by Sarkisian.

Finally, there are the tackle positions, two big keys and question marks. Neither current starters Wheeler nor Guertler have yet been identified as all-star candidates. Their desire and will, however, are there, but can they dominate, as has come to be expected from USC offensive tackles? They both appear to be finesse tackles, but perhaps the bigger question is who steps up to back up either one? The most intriguing spring offensive story might be sophomore tackle Banner, who is showing renewed promise after having hip surgery to improve his agility.

Biggest shoes to fill: USC

March, 27, 2014
Mar 27
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Starters in, starters out. That's college football. Players' eligibility expires and they leave for the rest of their lives, which might include the NFL or not. And they leave behind shoes of various sizes that need to be filled.

In alphabetical order, we will survey each Pac-12 team’s most notable void. Today we look at USC.

[+] EnlargeMax Tuerk
Kelley L Cox/USA TODAY SportsMax Tuerk is the favorite to start at center for the Trojans in 2014.
Biggest shoes: C Marcus Martin

While you could make a case USC's biggest question concerns who will generate an edge pass rush on defense, Martin was as underrated a player as a first-team All-Pac-12 center could be. Not only was he a force as a blocker, he was an important leader, which is one of the reasons he was often trotted out in front of reporters when the Trojans sports information staff needed an articulate voice -- see the news conference after Lane Kiffin was fired. He was the only Trojans O-lineman who started every regular season game in the same position, that "regular season" qualifier being required because he suffered a knee injury in the finale against UCLA that prevented him from playing in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl against Fresno State. Abe Markowitz gamely filled in against the Bulldogs, but he also is gone, as is 2013 depth chart reserve Cyrus Hobbi, who left the team. Finally, Martin's decision to enter the NFL draft a year early was a bit of a surprise, at least in terms of how he was perceived at the beginning of the 2013 season.

Stepping in: Junior Max Tuerk

Tuerk is the easy, safest answer, and some observers rate it almost as a done deal. The smart, versatile lineman has already started games at guard and tackle. It's not a matter whether Tuerk will start on the line, it's where. And it might be more important to go with an experienced junior such as Tuerk at center rather than have him move outside to right tackle to replace Kevin Graf and ask a youngster to quarterback the O-line. That said, redshirt freshman Khaliel Rodgers and freshman Toa Lobendahn, who enrolled early and has been impressive this spring, also are options. In the fall, touted freshman Viane Talamaivao arrives, and fifth-year senior Giovanni Di Poalo is a dark horse option. It just seems more likely that Rodgers, Lobendahn and Talamaivao will be competing for playing time at the less demanding guard spots than center.

Previous big shoes

LOS ANGELES -- Through a crush of digital cameras and recorders, new USC head coach Steve Sarkisian was given the requisite initial questions following his first official practice as USC’s head coach.

“What’s it like being back?”

“How was the walk onto the practice field?”

“What’s it like coaching some of the guys you recruited at Washington?”

Yada, yada, yada.

It didn’t take long, however, for the queries to turn to the quarterbacks. Much like last season, anytime USC has a quarterback competition it’s going to be in the national spotlight. For now, save the cards -- score, report or otherwise -- because to speculate on the quarterbacks after one practice barely scratches the surface of superficial. Particularly since, as Sarkisian noted, “we were practicing in our underwear.”

[+] EnlargeCody Kessler
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsCody Kessler led USC to 10 wins last season, but his status as starting quarterback is not guaranteed.
To be clear, the Trojans wore shorts and helmets. But the lingering question throughout spring and into the fall will be whether Cody Kessler will retain his starting job, or give way to Max Browne.

Neither quarterback seemed particularly thrilled to be talking about a competition on Day 1.

“I’m just trying to get better every practice,” Kessler said. “I’m going to keep working. I’ve been competing my whole life. And even if (there wasn’t a competition) I’d keep competing. It is what it is and I’m just going to keep trying to get better.”

At first glance, the assumption is that Kessler has the inside edge given his experience. Last season he completed 236 of 361 passes for 2,968 yards with 20 touchdowns to seven interceptions. He posted a raw QBR of 59.7 with an adjusted QBR of 66.7 in guiding the Trojans to a 10-4 record and a victory in the Las Vegas Bowl, where he was named the game’s MVP.

“I thought they both did some good stuff,” Sarkisian said. “They both had some moments they’d love to have back. We have to look at the film. We’re moving at a pretty fast clip out there, and you’re trying to assess everything at once, and it’s hard to do that. There’s plenty of stuff for both of them to learn from.”

Then again, Max Wittek had more experience than Kessler heading into spring last season. So as far as Browne is concerned, it’s wide open.

“Since the day I got here we’ve all competed each and every day,” said Browne, who redshirted last season. “My mindset hasn’t changed. Even last year when it was a Week 7 game and I knew I was redshirting, I was still competing ... It’s no secret he led us to 10 wins last year. We had a lot of success. But we’re both going to come out and compete each and every day and see where the chips fall.”

Max in the middle

Those in attendance for the open practice might have noticed big No. 75 playing center. You might recall that Max Tuerk spent about a week at center last spring but couldn’t quite get the quarterback-center exchange figured out -- mostly because Tuerk’s arms are so long.

But with Marcus Martin departing -- and the new scheme being installed by Sarkisian working almost exclusively out of the shotgun -- the versatile Tuerk could be the primary guy in the middle.

“We didn’t snap any over the quarterback’s head,” Sarkisian said. “So knock on wood. And there were no grounders. That was the first thing I was concerned about coming out today.”

Tuerk is obviously a fan of the shotgun. As a consummate team player, he’s happy going wherever the team needs him, as he started 13 games at left guard and one game at right tackle last season. In his freshman season he started five at left tackle.

“He could probably play three different positions,” Sarkisian said. “We have to see how we evolve. At some point we’ll get Aundrey Walker back and Zach Banner and Jordan Simmons. We have some versatility on this front. But it is comforting to know you have an experienced player at center when you are operating at this pace.”

Speaking of pace

The hot buzz word at practice was “tempo” because of the fast-paced offense that Sarkisian is installing. The Trojans ran approximately 120 offensive plays with little time to rest in between.

The upside is that the pace boosts conditioning and gets the Trojans more prepared for a game situation. The downside is it doesn’t allow for much in-practice instruction.

“If you make a mistake, you’re glad you’re going right back,” Browne said. “If you throw a touchdown, like I did today to George Katrib, you don’t get to time to celebrate either. It works both ways. But it allows you to get into a rhythm. You can dink-and-dunk your way down the field and never really get time to breathe.”
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LOS ANGELES -- The USC Trojans returned to the practice field for the opening day of spring practice, and coach Steve Sarkisian said the impact of the up-tempo style was evident throughout the day.

“I really liked the energy and focus that our players and coaches showed,” Sarkisian said. “We were by no means perfect, and there is plenty to learn from, but it was just awesome to get on the field finally with these guys.

“It’s such a long process after you get hired, you need to fill the staff and finish off the recruiting season, so it was nice to walk through Goux Gate and onto the practice field. We ran 120 plays today, which was similar to what we ran on the first day at Washington when we installed the up-tempo system. I thought the players responded really well to that, we only had one time period where we didn’t meet our quota of plays.”

[+] EnlargeSteve Sarkisian
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsSteve Sarkisian said the Trojans weren't perfect in their first spring practice, but he liked what he saw.
Sarkisian also noted one change from his time as an assistant at USC under Pete Carroll, as his offices are now in the John McKay Center as opposed to Heritage Hall.

“It’s a much shorter walk to the field now,” Sarkisian said with a smile. “I didn’t really have time to think too much about anything. I left the locker room and went up the All-American walk, made a right and, boom, I was at the field.”

Once he got to the field, there was plenty to note about the performance of his team during the first practice session of the spring.

The Trojans have an opening at center, which will be critical to fill on the offensive line, and Max Tuerk was working with the first unit. Tuerk has started games for USC at left tackle, right tackle and left guard and he was projected to move to RT this year to take over for Kevin Graf. Instead, Tuerk will get a look at center, where he played in limited action last spring before being moved back to guard due to struggles with the center/quarterback exchange.

“Max is a very bright young man and talented,” Sarkisian said. “There is a lot of work to be done on the line and we will take a look at options to see how things develop. It was a good day though, he didn’t snap the ball over anyone’s head and there were no grounders.”

Notes: Leonard Williams (shoulder) and Josh Shaw (stress fracture) were among those who did not participate on the defensive side of the ball. ... On offense, Justin Davis, George Farmer and Steven Mitchell all received limited work in walk-through sessions as they return from injury. ... Max Browne made an early impression in the quarterback competition with a pair of deep passes, including a touchdown to George Katrib. … Chris Hawkins had an interception and a pass break-up. ... Among the guests in attendance were Adoree' Jackson, Damien Mama, Ricky Town, Rahshead Johnson and former USC tailback Justin Fargas.

Q&A with Max Tuerk

Q: When were you told you’d be taking reps at center?

A: I was told by Coach [Tim] Drevno a little bit before we started meetings, probably about a month ago.

Q: What are your thoughts on the move?

A: Whatever is best for the team. I’m a big team player. I’ve moved around a lot in the last two years, so moving to center is a new, awesome thing that I can do.

Q: Is it better to not have the quarterback under center?

A: Yeah, I like the shotgun better.

Q: Is this a permanent move to center?

A: Whatever the team needs. If they need me to play center, then yes I will play center.

Q: Is the comfort level more than a year ago when you tried to play center? How is it different?

A: Yes, definitely. I just have a lot more confidence. We are all picking up the offense pretty good. It’s good to learn the offense and then start at center. It’s a little harder to start at a different position and then re-learn the offense at center.

Q: Is there one position you like better than the other in terms of blocking people?

A: I like them all.

Q: How was the speed today with the no huddle?

A: It was a lot of plays. It was good though.

Q: Was it easier to make the move when you saw how Marcus Martin flourished at this spot the last few years?

A: Yeah I definitely learned from Marcus. Marcus was a great player. He’s competing in pro day tomorrow so I’m gonna go watch him. He’s an awesome guy, awesome leader, so anything I can do to be like he was.

What to expect from day 1 of spring ball 

March, 10, 2014
Mar 10
11:00
AM PT
LOS ANGELES -- Tuesday marks the beginning of the Steve Sarkisian era on Howard Jones/Brian Kennedy Fields. It will be a festive day and you expect the following on the opening of spring ball:

" While the rest of the nation attempts to thaw out, it will be 72 degrees and sunny in L.A., making the switch to Daylight Savings Time that much better. Did we mention shorts were the order of the day?

" Upon entering Goux Gate, new head coach Steve Sarkisian will have a smile on his face as wide as the distance from Seattle to Los Angeles.

" A fan will remark that Sarkisian never ages and looks more like an altar boy than a football coach.


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When the Trojans hit the field on Tuesday to take part in the first spring practice session of the Steve Sarkisian era, competition will be the name of the game, as several players will vie for a host of spots that have been declared up for grabs by the new head coach.

And while much of the attention will naturally be directed at quarterback, where the incumbent Cody Kessler and rising second-year freshman Max Browne are slated to duke it out for the No. 1 role, it’s the fight up front -- for the starting center job left vacant by Marcus Martin’s early departure to the NFL -- that just might be the most crucial position battle of all.

After all, as everyone found out in 2012, when Khaled Holmes went down with an injury against Syracuse -- leaving the Trojans with an inexperienced Cyrus Hobbi to struggle in a loss to Stanford -- the fact of the matter is without a dependable performer at center to anchor down the line, the offense more often than not is going to have a difficult time moving the ball down field, no matter who else is in the lineup.

As such, one of the top priorities for new offensive line coach Tim Drevno this spring will be to unearth and groom USC’s next starting center.

Of course, filling the shoes of Martin – a 2013 All-Pac-12 first-team selection – won’t be easy, but the Trojans do have several promising candidates.

One player who will not be among those players, however, is Hobbi. It was recently revealed that the Scottsdale (Ariz.) Saguaro graduate is no longer a part of the team.

[+] EnlargeMax Tuerk
Kelley L Cox/USA TODAY SportsMax Tuerk is likely to start somewhere on the USC offensive line. He'd be perhaps the safest choice at center.
That twist turns the competition into essentially a three-man race, with Max Tuerk, Khaliel Rodgers and Toa Lobendahn standing out as the primary contenders.

Tuerk, a junior, is the Trojans' most accomplished and versatile returning offensive lineman. Having started games at guard and tackle during his career, while also taking snaps at center last spring, he has the unique ability to slide in anywhere along the line. The big question with Tuerk, though, is where does USC need him most? With the graduation of Kevin Graf, on top of Jordan Simmons likely being relegated to the sideline this spring as he recovers from a knee injury and Zach Banner’s potentially limited status because of fall hip surgery, Tuerk looks to be a natural fit at right tackle. He lined up there as a starter against Oregon State last season. Still, if no one else steps up at center, he just might be the safest option there.

Rodgers, who arrived at USC as a member of the Trojans’ 2013 recruiting class from Elkton (Md.) Eastern Christian Academy, spent his first season on campus learning the tricks of the trade as a member of the scout team. Generating a fair amount of buzz for his performance on the practice field while lining up primarily at guard, he’s a stout and powerfully built blocker who plays with a mean streak, and he would appear to possess all of the attributes needed to succeed at center. Still, no one will know for sure until he’s thrown into the fire this spring.

Lobendahn just arrived at USC this past January as an early entrant after a fantastic senior season at La Habra (Calif.). At 6-foot-3 and 290 pounds, he’s similar to Tuerk in that he has the ability to play just about anywhere along the line. At The Opening last summer, he took reps at tackle, guard and center, shining at all three spots while going up against the nation’s top high school defensive line talent. Possessing an exceptional work ethic to go along with a strong all-around skill set, there is certainly much to be excited about in Lobendahn. But as a green rookie just a few months removed from high school, is it too much to ask from him to step in and immediately contribute? Will he be able to meet the physical and mental demands of lining up at a position that holds so much responsibility right off the bat? Everyone will soon find out.

One more possible, although perhaps somewhat unlikely, candidate could be Giovanni Di Poalo. A fifth-year senior who has yet to make a real splash as a Trojan, he was listed as a backup center as a freshman, and again in 2012, but he seems to have settled in more at guard.

Viane Talamaivao is a highly touted member of USC’s recent recruiting haul who will arrive this summer, and he also could enter the discussion at center in addition to guard, but not until fall camp.

In either case, with the field of contenders who are already in the mix, there’s reason to believe that the battle for the starting center job just might be the real position battle to watch this spring. And with so much hinging on the potential outcome, it’s a competition that can’t begin soon enough.

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