USC Trojans: Zach Banner

The issue had been there since Zach Banner stepped foot on the USC campus in 2012.

Banner was an All-American offensive line recruit with tremendous potential. But at 6-foot-9, there was always a question if he was too tall to get the effective knee bend required for leverage against an opponent. A quick glance around the rosters of NFL and college teams show that there simply aren’t many offensive tackles that tall, and during the early part of his career as a Trojan, it was unclear how Banner would fare.

After redshirting during his freshman season, Banner began the 2013 season still struggling with the transition. There would be plays when he showed good athleticism and bend and some plays when he didn't, and it was clear the issue wasn’t going away.

Then came a diagnosis of a hip condition last fall, and then surgeries on both hips, along with a dedicated rehab period that has allowed him to show up as a “new man” for the 2014 spring drills, which happen to feature a new staff and a fresh start for the USC players. All that is adding to a brighter outlook for Banner.

[+] EnlargeZach Banner
John Pyle/Cal Sport Media/AP ImagesAt 6-foot-9, Zach Banner is tall for an offensive lineman. But with healthy hips, he's feeling ready to fulfill his potential.
“This is all new to me,” Banner said. “I mean that. I’m a new person. I’ve never been able to bend like this before, never been able to get in this kind of stance. I have no idea what’s going on with my body right now. These are new hips that I’ve never had in my life. It’s crazy but I love it.”

Through the first two weeks of spring practice, Banner had primarily played left tackle with the second unit, but in the last two practices he has also played right tackle, and received extended reps with the first unit. It’s too early to know where things stand right now in terms of potential playing time, but that’s not the big picture, for either Banner or his coach. At this point, it’s more important to see him on the field, building up his strength and his confidence.

“I’ve been pleasantly impressed with Zach,” USC coach Steve Sarkisian said. “I didn’t come in with expectations of anybody. I don’t even know if Zach had any expectations of what he was going to be capable of doing this spring. But I think he got in there and said, ‘Wait, I can do this,’ and he got in a little bit more and it felt good.

“I think the issue of the knee bend and pad level is something you’ll constantly hear with him. When you’re 6-foot-9 and coming off hip surgeries, that can be the challenge. But he’s responded to it and I think his stance has gotten better, which leads to coming off the football, continuing to stay low and getting that pad level right. He’s working on it. Everybody has their own unique challenges and that will forever be one for Zach, when you’re 6-foot-9.”

For Banner, he is appreciative to be in this position, to have a longtime problem taken care of to the point where he can become the player he wants to be.

“If I had this body coming out of high school, it would have been a different story, but it wasn’t,” Banner said. “It wasn’t flexibility issues, it was bone growth. I had to get surgery. It was there my whole life and I didn’t even know about it. FAI: That’s the name of the hip impediment. We got a great doctor, Dr. Jason Snibbe, one of the best hip doctors on the west coast and Pat Haden brought him in to work on me. We fixed it. I’m happy. I’m loving life right now.”

Things aren’t exactly at full speed yet for Banner, however. As positive as the start has been to spring, he knows there is still plenty of work to be done.

“Healing-wise I’m at 100 percent, but strength-wise I’m probably at 60 percent,” Banner said. “I’m feeling no pain in my hips, but I have to build the strength. I’m not able to go as hard as I want to yet because I’m just not strong enough, but that’s up to me to get there; I have to earn that. It’s great that we have new coaches and a new opportunity and that I’m in a position to take advantage of it. The coaches are throwing me in the fire, which I love, but they aren’t doing it stupidly. Now I just have to work my ass off, get my strength up and get back on the field.”

Sarkisian says he's excited about Banner's potential.

“He is a big man who is hard to run around, 6-foot-whatever he is, 350 some odd pounds," Sarkisian said. "A lot of his future will center around his confidence continuing to grow. He’s a very bright guy. He’s physically gifted enough; it’s just a matter of getting him knowing that he is capable of doing it. I think he’s been showing that, especially in the last couple days.”

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.
As his USC team returned from spring break and got back into the practice routine on Tuesday, Steve Sarkisian said he was focused on three key areas of fundamentals to test his players.

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


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The Trojans are now in the final stretch of spring ball with just over a week of practice remaining on the schedule. As injuries continue to mount and position battles rage on, here’s how a potential depth chart just might look if one were released today.

Quarterback

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Saturday's scrimmage report

March, 30, 2013
3/30/13
5:58
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LOS ANGELES -- The Trojans held a scrimmage on Saturday at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, with the offense having the most balanced day of the spring.

[+] EnlargeNelson Agholor
Jonathan Moore/Getty ImagesReceiver Nelson Agholor proved last season that he can be a deep threat for USC.
“I thought this was the best day for the offense in terms of having a good balance of running the ball and throwing the ball downfield,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said. “Both of the quarterbacks were accurate, they handled things well, and I thought the offensive line has put together two of their best practices in a row.”

There was plenty of scoring in the scrimmage, including two touchdowns each from Nelson Agholor (four catches for 93 yards) and Justin Davis (11 rushes, 54 yards).

Agholor has scored at least one long touchdown in each of the three spring scrimmages so far. Today, it was a 59-yard effort on the opening series on a pretty pass from Cody Kessler down the right sideline.

It was the second eye-opening practice in a row for Davis. Not only did he get into the end zone twice but his most impressive run might have been when he bowled over Leon McQuay III on an 11-yard gain in the red zone.

Both quarterbacks did well too. In addition to the opening touchdown to Agholor, Kessler also had a scoring pass courtesy of a great effort from Victor Blackwell. With the offense at the 25-yard line Kessler lofted a pass into the right corner of the end zone, where Torin Harris had solid coverage on Blackwell, only to see Blackwell simply leap up and get the ball for the score.

As a side note, Blackwell’s high school coach, Bruce Rollinson from Santa Ana (Calif.) Mater Dei, was standing on the sidelines near the play and had a big smile on his face for his former star. Kessler ended the day completing five of nine passes for 99 yards and two touchdowns.

Wittek, who also played for Rollinson at Mater Dei, hit Agholor for a 15-yard score, but his best throw of the day came when he threw down the right sideline to George Farmer for a 47-yard gain. Wittek completed three of five passes for 84 yards and one touchdown, he also had one potential touchdown pass dropped by Blackwell.

On defense, the two most active players were J.R. Tavai and Josh Shaw.

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One of the primary areas of emphasis for the USC Trojans over the remaining three weeks of spring ball will be solidifying the rotation along the offensive line.


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LOS ANGELES -- The USC Trojans opened up the 2013 spring ball practice session with a spirited workout, which is typical for the first day of spring.

“I thought things looked good today,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said. “That is usually the case in spring, guys are fired up to get out here and start going to work. I also liked what I saw from our coaches, especially since some of them have only been with us for a short time. They were really ready to go.”

One of the new items to watch for the Trojans this spring is the 5-2 defense which is run by new defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast. Kiffin said that getting the new defense set is the top priority of spring and the highlight play of the day was an example of how the defense can shine. Jabari Ruffin -- who was lined up at defensive end -- had an interception of a Cody Kessler pass after dropping back into coverage and leaping in the air to make the play.

Kessler is part of what is expected to be an intense quarterback competition along with Max Wittek and Max Browne. Kiffin said Kessler was on schedule to be named MVP of the day until the interception and he also liked what he saw from his true freshman.

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Spring preview: USC offense 

March, 4, 2013
3/04/13
8:00
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With the start of spring practice set for Tuesday, here’s a position-by-position look at who you can expect to see lining up for the Trojans on offense.

Quarterback

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Max WittekCal Sport Media/AP ImagesMax Wittek should enter spring ball as the No. 1 QB, but there will be serious competition.

With signing day now in the books, here’s a look at where the current USC depth chart might stand on the offensive side of the ball with the new additions factored in.

Quarterback
Max Wittek (6-4, 235, RS So.) OR
Cody Kessler (6-1, 215, RS So.) OR
Max Browne (6-5, 215, Fr.).


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USC roundtable: 2013 offensive line 

January, 24, 2013
1/24/13
10:00
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The Trojans only lose one player on the offensive line, but there could be a lot of shuffling in spring ball. Give your thoughts on how you think the two-deep along the line will shake out.

Garry Paskwietz:

LT – Aundrey Walker, Chad Wheeler; LG – Max Tuerk, Marcus Martin; C – Cyrus Hobbi or Marcus Martin; RG – John Martinez, Jordan Simmons; RT – Kevin Graf, Zach Banner

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A number of coaches had made a strong push for U.S. Army All-American Bowl week standout Khaliel Rodgers (Elkton, Md./Eastern Christian Academy) in recent weeks. The USC offensive line commit half-listened, just in case something happened, but never wavered.

Rodgers’ official visit to USC this weekend was his first -- and last.

“It was the best time ever,” Rodgers said. “I’m not going to take any other visits. I’m solid with USC. This solidified my commitment. It was a great experience. The main thing I got from it was the family feeling within the team. It’s like we’re all brothers, man. They took us in and they took care of us.”

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USC offensive breakdown 

December, 12, 2012
12/12/12
9:00
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Our look back at the USC offense for 2012 and a look ahead for what to expect in 2013.

Marqise Lee
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/US PresswireMarqise Lee is a spectacular talent, but the Trojans need to be less reliant on the star receiver in 2013.
What was good in 2012: The Trojans had the best wide receiver in football in Marqise Lee, and it wasn’t even close. Check any measurement you want; the Biletnikoff Award, the Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year, any number of All-American teams. Those kinds of honors tend to roll in when you set a conference record for catches (112) and receiving yards (1,680) while also leading the conference in kickoff-return yardage. His masterpiece was the Arizona game, with 16 catches for 345 yards and a pair of scores along with 123 yards in kickoff returns.

What was bad in 2012: Too much reliance on Lee. As good as Lee was, there was a train of thought during the season -- one that was even offered up recently in comments by Matt Barkley -- that the Trojans may have focused too much on Lee in relation to other players. There is no shortage of skill weapons on the USC roster, yet Lee caught more balls this year than the next two receivers combined, and one of those other players -- Robert Woods -- is the all-time USC leader in career receptions. The USC offense, which was supposed to be one of the best in the country, had too many bouts of sputtering and inconsistent play. Finding a semblance of balance will be important as the Trojans head into next year.

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Redshirting OT Banner gets trip home

October, 12, 2012
10/12/12
5:24
AM PT
LOS ANGELES -- USC Trojans freshman offensive lineman Zach Banner is redshirting this season, so he has been left at home for each of the Trojans' three trips this year.

But coach Lane Kiffin is throwing him a bone this week and putting Banner on the travel squad for the team's game against Washington. Banner grew up in Tacoma, Wash., 30 miles from Seattle, where the game will be played, and was raised a Huskies fan.

Banner was elated to find out he'd be accompanying the team, even though he won't be playing unless something drastic happens.

"If I was gonna pick any trip, it'd be this one," he said this week.

The mammoth 6-foot-9, 335-pounder expects about 30 family members to attend and anticipated he'll be giving out a "a lot of love pats and I-miss-you's" on the field afterward.

Teams are allowed to take 70 players on conference road trips. Kiffin said NCAA-mandated scholarship limitations and normal injuries have left the Trojans with less than 70 available players who they could count on in a game.

"We're not at that point," Kiffin said. "So we take some guys that never play and so that's the good thing about the sanctions. ... Zach gets to go on a trip home and go up there.

"Hopefully we won't be doing that for many years."

Banner, the son of former NFL lineman Lincoln Kennedy, said he was stressing to himself that it was a business trip, regardless of the game's location. The fact that he went to several Huskies home games as recently as last season doesn't matter anymore, he said.

"One thing that's cool about it is Coach Kiff is giving me the opportunity not only to go home and see the family, something I'm not able to do because I'm not from around here, but he's also giving me the experience of what it's like to travel," Banner said this week. "Next year, for my real freshman year, I'm gonna know what it's like to travel and not have it phase me."

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