USC Trojans: Toa Lobendahn
“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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Did the coach forget to call a certain play? Was there a problem with the substitution patterns?
No, nothing like that. The error to which Sarksisian copped to involved a USC tradition that goes back 25 years when linebacker Junior Seau wore the No. 55. Since that time, other star defensive players from Willie McGinest to Chris Claiborne and Keith Rivers have also worn the heralded number. It has taken on a life of itself in Trojan lore.
This spring, Sarkisian gave No. 55 to early enrollee offensive lineman Toa Lobendahn, who has worked his way into the first unit at left guard. Junior linebacker Lamar Dawson -- who sat out this spring with an injury -- also wears No. 55.
When McGinest was asked about an offensive player wearing his number, he made his thoughts clear.
“USC is all about tradition, and to put that number on means something,” McGinest said, while being interviewed during the spring game. “We’ve got to have some meetings and conversations with Sark about that.”
Sarkisian quickly gave a mea culpa in his post-spring game news conference.
“It’s a little bit of miscommunication there, and I probably dropped the ball so we’ll fix it,” Sarkisian said. “It’s a great number and a historical number, and I’ve got a lot of respect for the guys who have worn it.”
When asked if Lobendahn will be wearing No. 55 when fall camp rolls around, Sarkisian answered, “probably not.”
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.
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.
“For the most part our conditioning was good [on Tuesday], so it showed a willingness by the players to work during spring break,” Sarkisian said. “Coming out of the break there were some key things that our staff wanted to focus on, the first one being pad level. That was a point of emphasis today, especially late in the practice. The ability of our defense to tackle and attempt to strip the football was another priority, and I thought that was evident. And I thought the quarterbacks made quicker decisions today, which was key coming out of the break.”
Sarkisian continues to emphasize the uptempo aspect of practice, which is combined with multiple periods of walk-through teaching each day that serve as a direct contrast to the frenzied pace of team drills.
“I think the players are getting more comfortable with the uptempo part of things,” Sarkisian said. “Things even got a little feisty at the end, which is good. But I always say that if you have time to yack at the guy across from you, then we aren’t going fast enough.”
There were several defensive players who stood out on Tuesday, including Hayes Pullard with a big hit on Ty Isaac, J.R. Tavai with a sack of Cody Kessler, Charles Burks with a sack of Jalen Greene, Chris Hawkins with a pass breakup against Darreus Rogers, and a solid run stop up the middle from Claudeson Pelon and Anthony Sarao.
“I thought our communication was much better defensively,” Sarkisian said. “We’ve put in a lot for the defense and it’s been a challenge, but I think this is one area where the walk-throughs really help us, not just the guys on the field but the 20 guys who aren’t practicing are getting valuable reps.”
There was continued experimentation along the offensive line as early entry freshman Toa Lobendahn got extended work with the first team at left guard, while the second-unit tackles were switched for a while with Zach Banner moving to the right side and Jordan Austin switching to the left.
“We looked at film of Lobendahn over the break and said, ‘This guy has a real chance,’ ” Sarkisian said. “He’s a real mature kid, he works at it, he studies, he prepares.”
It was also a good day for the passing game, as both Buck Allen and George Farmer stood out. Allen had a pair of long gains on wheel routes from Kessler, and Farmer, who was wearing a yellow jersey to signify no contact, caught a deep ball from Max Browne as well as a nice grab on an intermediate route. Browne also hit Nelson Agholor with a deep pass.
Among those in attendance at practice were signees Damien Mama, Adoree' Jackson and Ajene Harris, as well as verbal commit Ricky Town.
Why would Drevno leave the highly successful San Francisco 49ers and long-time mentor Jim Harbaugh and return to the college game? After all, the NFL offers a great salary, a tremendous retirement plan for assistant coaches, and one doesn’t have to deal with the non-stop world of recruiting.
“The big draw for me was USC,” said Drevno, a Southern California native. “My grandfather went to USC -- a 1951 graduate of the pharmacy school -- my sister is a 1982 graduate in hospital administration, and I grew up a USC fan going to games.”
The dream of his youth was to be a USC tailback and receive all the acclaim that goes with one of college football’s most storied positions.
“I used to be on my mom’s bed and would jump over the bed acting like I was Marcus Allen,” said Drevno, a former all-league lineman at South Torrance (Calif.) High. “I wanted to be a tailback, but I grew up to be an offensive lineman.”
Although he played at Cal State Fullerton, where he received his degree in criminal justice in 1992, you get the impression that Drevno is living a second childhood after being named the Trojans offensive line coach.
“I love the man,” said the 44-year-old Drevno. “He taught me to run the ball first and be physical up front -- attack each day with enthusiasm unknown to mankind. You’re either getting better or you’re getting worse; you’re never staying the same. Be the best at whatever you do.”
Drevno’s 49ers résumé is impressive. In 2013, tackle Joe Staley and guard Mike Iupati made the Pro Bowl. In 2012, all five of the 49ers’ line starters were selected for the Pro Bowl, and Iupati was a first-team All-Pro selection. Not bad for a coach whose previous coaching stops also include Cal St. Fullerton, Montana State, UNLV, San Jose State, Idaho, and the University of San Diego.
So should Trojans fans soon expect the same type of powerful offensive lines that Drevno formed with the 49ers and Stanford?
“First, we’ll have to see what we’re working with and we’ll piece it together as we go,” Drevno said.
And what will it take for the Trojans to play Drevno’s physical brand of offensive line football?
“Covering somebody up, moving your feet and hands, and getting after it,” Drevno said. “It’s about both attitude and technique. This game is about blocking and tackling. Those are the qualities it takes to win, and the physicality comes later.
“All of football is a mindset when it comes to physical play. You have to work at it to be good at it. You just can’t do one thing and be one-dimensional. It’s a want to and a brotherhood in the room. You have to want to take ownership.”
Despite the Trojans limited numbers, Drevno takes a practical yet positive approach as his unit embarks on a new system.
“We’ve got a great group to work with and we have 10 healthy guys right now,” Drevno said. “We have other guys that will be healthy soon, and you just push forward. Guys are working hard and getting better every day. You coach them hard.”
It was feared during the recruiting period that Drevno’s late addition to the staff might affect USC’s chances of signing a great offensive line class. As the 49ers went through the playoffs, only to lose to eventual Super Bowl champions Seattle Seahawks, Trojans recruits such as highly coveted Bellflower (Calif.) St John Bosco All-America prep tackle Damien Mama took notice.
“The staff did a great job of holding on to them and keeping me up to date,” Drevno said. “We lost that game in Seattle and I flew down immediately to be in the home of Damien Mama. These are good football players coming in and we’re excited to be working with them.”
Even before spring ball, Drevno had been hard at work evaluating his offensive linemen. It was decided about a month ago that starting junior offensive guard Max Tuerk would get yet another crack at center with the early departure of Marcus Martin to the 2014 NFL draft.
“Max is a smart guy, and we’re trying to put the best five guys on the field,” Drevno said. “He’s a veteran guy and he’s played a lot of snaps. We started there; we’ll mix it up and see what’s best for everybody.”
And everybody also means true freshmen Toa Lobendahn, a potential center candidate who left La Habra (Calif.) High early to enroll in time for spring practice, as did Claremont (Calif.) High tackle Jordan Austin.
“Toa comes from a football family with his dad being a coach,” Drevno said. “Coach's kids do the right things, and they been around a lot chasing balls around, so he fits in pretty well.
“I am really impressed with Toa and Jordan Austin. They all have tremendous want to and they want to be good. These guys are a very good draft class in terms of prospects.”
When asked about re-adjusting from coaching in the NFL to coaching in college, Drevno remains philosophical.
“Football is football whether you’re coaching Pop Warner, high school, college, or the pros,” Drevno said. “You roll the ball out and you execute at a high level. The patience level is the same; it’s a journey.”
Drevno’s cardinal and gold journey is just beginning. Not bad for a former USC tailback wannabe.
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.
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.
Pelon: He is the most likely of the early enrollees to make an immediate impact as he competes for the interior spot vacated by George Uko. Pelon has massive size with a 6-foot-5, 285-pound frame along with two years of playing experience at the junior college level. He will face a lot of competition from players like Antwaun Woods, Delvon Simmons, Kenny Bigelow and Greg Townsend Jr. (along with the possibility of J.R. Tavai) but Pelon will be given every opportunity in spring to show that he can be part of the interior rotation.
Hill: Don’t expect much from Hill this spring as he rehabs from an Achilles' heel injury suffered last year. Hill was committed to Steve Sarkisian and Washington before flipping to USC, so these coaches have long thought that Hill could fit in their plans. He’s projected as a DE who could play a stand-up OLB role.
Greene: There were a few raised eyebrows when Sarkisian offered a scholarship to Greene, who wasn’t previously on the USC radar as a commit to Boise State. Now with the recent announcement that Max Wittek would be leaving the program, Greene suddenly has the opportunity to get a lot of reps in his first spring with the Trojans. The main competition at the position will be between incumbent Cody Kessler and the talented Max Browne, but Greene will benefit from the added work that comes when only three scholarship quarterbacks are on the roster.
Lobendahn: While Pelon might be the mostly likely of the early entries to see immediate playing time, don’t rule Lobendahn out of that mix because the Trojans need a center and there are no clear-cut favorites for the role. Khaliel Rodgers enters spring as a candidate with one year of experience as a guard but Lobendahn figures to be given a shot to compete for the spot. Lobendahn is the son of a coach who was also a lineman so the genes and fundamentals are there. He has a versatile and aggressive playing style that reminds us of former USC lineman Lenny Vandermade, who is back with the program this spring as part of the staff.
Austin: There won’t be many immediate expectations for Austin this spring. He will be added in as depth with a chance to begin his development process a semester early, which is always a bonus for an incoming lineman.
With national signing day in the books, RecruitingNation is looking at the top position classes. For the full series, click here.
Nationally (and SEC)
Not only did Alabama put together the best offensive line class in the 2014 cycle, but it's also one of the best in recent memory. The Crimson Tide inked early enrollee and five-star offensive tackle Cameron Robinson (Monroe, La./West Monroe) and also got top-ranked junior college offensive tackle Dominick Jackson (San Mateo, Calif./College of San Mateo). On the interior, the nation's top two centers, No. 168 overall Josh Casher (Mobile, Ala./Saint Paul’s Episcopal) and No. 190 J.C. Hassenauer (Woodbury, Minn./East Ridge) signed, as did No. 3 guard Ross Pierschbacher (Cedar Falls, Iowa/Cedar Falls). A second guard in the class is three-star Montel McBride (Plant City, Fla./Plant City), who could also play nose tackle at the next level.
The Crimson Tide had the nation’s best offensive line class; here’s which schools had the best in each of the remaining power conferences:
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And while those big-play skill-position prospects garnered much of the attention, USC just might have made its biggest splash along the offensive line.
Sarkisian & Co. reeled in arguably the most highly acclaimed collection of offensive linemen in one recruiting cycle at USC since Pete Carroll’s 2008 class that included Khaled Holmes, Matt Kalil and Tyron Smith – all of whom currently play in the NFL.
Included in this year’s bumper crop are Jordan Austin (Claremont, Calif./Claremont), as well as ESPN 300 members Chris Brown (Los Angeles/Loyola), Toa Lobendahn (La Habra, Calif./La Habra), Damien Mama (Bellflower, Calif./St. John Bosco) and Viane Talamaivao (Corona, Calif./Centennial).
“To sign five offensive linemen, some of whom will have opportunities to contribute early on, I think is big,” Sarkisian said at his signing day news conference. “It’s a great group, and a group that was much needed.”
After all, that smashmouth, take-no-prisoners mindset and standard of production that existed during USC’s magical runs under John McKay, John Robinson and Pete Carroll is something that was noticeably lacking during the past four seasons under Lane Kiffin, at least on a consistent basis.
But there’s reason to believe that with this class -- on top of Sarkisian’s commitment to maintaining an aggressive ground game as an integral part of his fast-paced offense and the hiring of a position coach in Drevno, who has had experience coaching physical offensive lines at Stanford and with the San Francisco 49ers -- that the foundation is there for a successful future.
Each member of the new haul brings something unique. Austin, a mid-year enrollee, is a fantastic 6-foot-5, 275-pound athlete with the frame to pile on more weight, making him a promising tackle prospect for down the road. Brown is an attacking blocker with outstanding technique who can play guard or tackle. Mama is a 370-pound mauler who projects at guard. Talamaivao, who can play guard (and, according to Sarkisian, possibly center) is another player who is noted for his physicality, as well as a nasty streak when he hits the field. And then there’s Lobendahn. Another early entrant, he’s capable of lining up at center, guard or tackle, making him the most versatile of the bunch.
Of the five, Mama, Talamaivao and Lobendahn – who will participate in spring practice – appear most poised to make their presence felt immediately, either as potential starters or key backups.
Significant veterans such as guard/tackle Max Tuerk, tackle Chad Wheeler and guard Aundrey Walker are returning, on top of a slew of reserves such as Jordan Simmons, Zach Banner, Khaliel Rodgers and Nico Falah. So it certainly looks like the Trojans have a deep and talented offensive line unit to pave the way up front next season.
Still, questions abound when discussing this group. Sarkisian has said that every member on the team currently out with an injury will return in time for fall camp, including Walker (ankle), Simmons (knee) and Banner (hip). If any of those players miss the spring and a portion of the summer workouts, however, what kind of shape will they be in when the season rolls around? Will Walker be ready to step into a starting role at right guard again? Can Simmons, who showed tremendous ability in practice, pick up where he left off?
What about the now-vacant center and right tackle positions? Who nails down those spots? And who will step in to assume a leadership role?
The good news is that it’s only February, giving the USC coaches plenty of time to figure out the answers to all of those questions and more.
One thing, though, is already certain. With Austin, Brown, Lobendahn, Mama and Talamaivao now a part of the future equation, the offensive line is in a much better place today, both in regard to the 2014 season and in the long term, than it was just a couple of weeks ago.
DB/WR Adoree' Jackson (Gardena, Calif./Serra)
5-foot-11, 185 pounds
TE Bryce Dixon (Ventura, Calif./St. Bonaventure)
6-4, 240 pounds
With Xavier Grimble opting to take his talents to the NFL and the Trojans possessing just two other scholarship tight ends in Randall Telfer and Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick, Dixon was one of USC’s most crucial signings. The No. 1 player at his position in the ESPN 300, he’s a dangerous receiving threat who hauled in 64 passes this past season, making him a perfect fit in Sarkisian’s tight end-friendly offense. A phenomenal all-around talent who also impressed the new coaching staff with the athleticism that he showcased in basketball, he has a clear path to playing time, with the capability of adding a unique dimension to the offense down the line.
WR/DB John "Juju" Smith (Long Beach, Calif./Poly)
6-2, 210 pounds
Smith is yet another in a large contingent of two-way stars that the Trojans landed in this class. Slated to begin his career on offense, where he garnered a reputation as a dynamic game-breaker on the high school level, he’ll be thrown into the mix as part of a receivers group that was down to just five scholarship performers following Marqise Lee’s jump to the NFL. Nelson Agholor and Darreus Rogers are the obvious front-runners to nail down starting jobs, with Victor Blackwell, George Farmer, Steven Mitchell and the other new additions also entering the discussion. But with the unique combination of size and speed that Smith brings, on top of the fact that the Trojans will be running more of an uptempo offense that figures to get a greater number of wideouts involved, there should be plenty of opportunities for the Long Beach (Calif.) Poly star to jump right in.
A mid-year enrollee, Lobendahn has the potential to become a key piece of the puzzle for an offensive line group that lost some important members from last year’s team, most notably starting center Marcus Martin and right tackle Kevin Graf. Fortunately for the Trojans, Lobendahn can line up at just about any position along the line, and more than that, he’s also given every indication that he has the physical tools to succeed at the next level. At The Opening last summer, Lobendahn went up against the nation’s most sought-after defensive line prospects and more than held his own, emerging as one of the top five offensive line performers in attendance, all while taking reps at center, guard and tackle. USC is bringing in a phenomenal collection of offensive linemen in this class, including fellow ESPN 300 members Chris Brown, Damien Mama and Viane Talamaivao, but Lobendahn gets the slight edge here with his versatility and the fact that he will participate in spring ball – a major factor in the lightning-quick development of safety Su’a Cravens and tailback Justin Davis last season.
DL Claudeson Pelon (Mesa, Ariz./Mesa Community College)
During his signing day news conference, Sarkisian referred to Pelon as an “immediate impact” athlete, and it’s easy to see why. The top junior college defensive lineman on the USC coaching staff’s radar, he has hulking size to go along with an explosive burst off the line and a nonstop motor. Another new addition who will participate in spring practice, he will push for significant time right away on the interior. With players such as Leonard Williams, Delvon Simmons, Kenny Bigelow, Antwaun Woods, Cody Temple, Greg Townsend Jr. and Pelon all in the fold, it’s safe to say that the Trojans will have a formidable defensive line unit at their disposal in 2014.
Here they are again, with accompanying retrospective analysis that indicates how much the Trojans truly accomplished in the month leading up to national signing day:
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But when the Trojans head coach spoke to the media on Wednesday, following a banner day in which USC closed with a fury to land the nation’s No. 14 signing class, a pair of holdovers from the previous staff drew the most praise – wide receivers coach Tee Martin and offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Clay Helton.
After all, it was Martin and Helton who served as the one constant for many of the prospects committed to or considering the Trojans throughout the coaching change. And it was because of their efforts that the new staff was able to make what Sarkisian called a “seamless” transition.
“What they did with the players that were committed to us, and holding on to the relationships with the players that were not committed to us yet, and then as we brought on one coaching staff member after another, the ability of those guys to integrate together and collectively recruit what I think is a fantastic class in a short amount of time,” Sarkisian said, “those guys deserve a great deal of credit.”
“You know, they didn’t know if they were going to be kept on, but they continued to recruit,” Sarkisian said. “It was very clear that these guys love USC, they wanted to be a part of it, they wanted to continue to work for USC, and they did it at a really high level.”
Of course, Martin’s standing as an exceptional recruiter already was firmly established before this cycle began. Still, with what he accomplished this time around, there’s little doubt that his status was elevated even further. Primarily responsible for the Los Angeles-area targets, as well as those in Florida and Georgia, he was involved with no fewer than 11 of USC’s eventual signees, including the three ESPN 300 prospects the Trojans reeled in at the end – offensive guard Damien Mama (Bellflower, Calif./St. John Bosco), cornerback Adoree' Jackson (Gardena, Calif./Serra) and athlete John “Juju” Smith (Long Beach, Calif./Poly).
“Tee has done a fantastic job,” Sarkisian said. “Tee’s energy, his work ethic [and] his relentlessness in recruiting has been tremendous. I think he does a fantastic job of developing relationships with the high school coaches and with the recruits themselves.”
Helton doesn’t necessarily have quite the reputation in recruiting circles that Martin does, but according to Sarkisian, he was equally as impressive. He played a key part in the recruitment of at least six eventual Trojans, including the No. 1 tight end/H-back in the ESPN 300, Bryce Dixon (Ventura, Calif./ St. Bonaventure), as well as standout offensive linemen Toa Lobendahn (La Habra, Calif./La Habra) and Viane Talamaivao (Corona, Calif./Centennial).
Noticeably low key when he’s off the field and dealing with the media, Sarkisian was quick to point out that when it comes to Helton’s pursuit of top-notch high school players, he’s as competitive and intense as any coach around – something he learned first-hand when the two went head-to-head in the past.
“I’ve had to battle Clay on the other side where I’ve felt like, ‘Geez, this guy just won’t stop,’" Sarkisian said. “You know, I feel like I’ve got the kid, and then Clay just keeps coming around and around.”
In addition to their work ethic and determined mindset, Martin, who hails from Alabama, and Helton, a Texas native, also share an ability to communicate and relate to recruits and their families that Sarkisian believes stems from their down-to-earth southern backgrounds.
“They’ve got that southern hospitality about them that I think the parents, the kids, they feel Clay, they feel Tee,” Sarkisian said. “They can really connect with them. They don’t have rushed conversations. They take their time. And in the end, the time that they spend, the quality of conversation that they have with the parents and the kids holds true.”
It’s those unique traits that Martin and Helton bring to the table that adds an element of variety that Sarkisian believes is one of the recipes to a strong coaching staff.
And with Wednesday’s results serving as potential proof of that fact, it’s safe to say that he’s thankful to have both of them around.
“The end result,” Sarkisian said, “was that they had a big factor in the class that we signed.”
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On the surface, USC appears to be in a favorable position with its remaining top targets. Unlike last year, when the Trojans lost a handful of recruits in the waning moments, new head coach Steve Sarkisian & Co. seem primed to finish strong.
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TBD Weber State Arizona State TBD Idaho State Utah TBD Rutgers Washington State
TBD UC Davis Stanford TBD Fresno State USC TBD Colorado State Colorado TBD Washington Hawaii TBD California Northwestern TBD Portland State Oregon State TBD UCLA Virginia TBD South Dakota Oregon