USC Trojans: Aundrey Walker

A look at USC's rehabbing players

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10
7:12
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LOS ANGELES -- They observe in jerseys, and for those who can, they participate in controlled spring conditioning drills, walk-throughs, and mental preparation. Some even walk the steep steps of the Coliseum from bottom to top and back down again.

But no matter what they do, USC's walking wounded aren’t remotely in the same condition as their healthy brethren, who are fit enough to stretch the limits of their physical being in Steve Sarkisian’s nonstop practice pace.

[+] EnlargeJustin Davis
AP Photo/Rick ScuteriJustin Davis isn't a factor this spring, but his work ethic and motor will help him be ready for fall camp.
Sarkisian, USC's first-year head coach, is a great believer in muscle memory, which basically means one learns from doing rather than watching. In his incredibly fast paced, no-huddle offense and rotating defense, muscle memory must also go hand-in-hand with muscle conditioning.

Despite watching their teammates practice and condition at a pace not seen on Howard Jones/Brian Kennedy Fields, there is an uneasiness that come regular season camp, in the heat of summer, the currently rehabilitating players could be in for a major conditioning shock.

Sarkisian feels that his available players in spring ball are now rounding into the type of shape needed for the regular season, and spring ball has been a catalyst to being in the type of condition needed for fall competition.

“That’s why we practice the way that we do,” Sarkisian said. “That’s why we make it as hard we can throughout practice. This prepares our guys for a game-like atmosphere.”

Come practice in August, Sarkisian expects his healthy players to return ready to go from a conditioning standpoint, and he also knows the conditioning challenge is even more pronounced for those rehabbing.

“The guys [who] are injured have their work cut out for them when they get back,” Sarkisian said.

Here are six rehabilitating players being held out of spring ball (for the most part) who are expected to be key contributors in 2014. They all will be faced with the challenge of getting into “Sarkisian shape” by early August:

• RB Justin Davis: Given the sophomore’s early track record of success on and off the field, Davis -- who suffered a season-ending broken ankle in 2013 -- figures to be ready with an indisputable work ethic and relentless motor. Expect him to enter fall camp in top condition.

• LB Lamar Dawson: Recovering from a left knee injury, this senior will not only battle junior Anthony Sarao for his starting inside linebacker position, but he will have to be in the type of shape that Sarao knows all too well. Sarao has really come on and plays with a high motor and intelligence, so Dawson has his work cut out for him in more ways than one.

• WR Steven Mitchell: The redshirt freshman is an electrifying player when healthy. Recovering from tearing ligaments in his right knee during the summer of 2013, Mitchell says he is still on the mend but expects to be in ready to go in August. A hard worker, the former Bishop Alemany star’s return would be a major addition for the currently ultra-thin receiving corps.

• OG Jordan Simmons: With his size (6-foot-4, 335) and the pace of the offense, will the sophomore be able to come into camp in the type of shape needed for the no-huddle offense? Simmons, recovering from knee surgery, could very well be a key and the final piece of the offensive line. So far Simmons is still potential and an unproven talent.

• TE Randall Telfer: With Xavier Grimble leaving early for the NFL draft, it appeared that Telfer would step right in. The senior might still do so, but he has been held out of spring ball with a knee issue, and his absence has opened the way for an impressive March and April by junior Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick. It would behoove Telfer to be in the best condition of his Trojans career to hold off Cope-Fitzpatrick and the incoming presence of true freshman talent Bryce Dixon.

• OG Aundrey Walker: There are those both within the team and onlookers who say that Walker, now a senior, has the talent. But does he have the motivation? The Ohio native has spent spring practice observing and going through “soft” drills, but one wonders how the 6-foot-6, 300-pound guard will cope with the physical and mental conditioning demands to play in Sarkisian’s never-take-a-breath offense.
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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.”

Roundtable: USC spring storylines

February, 19, 2014
Feb 19
2:15
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WeAreSC staffers give opinions on topics related to Trojans football:

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

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

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

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

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

It was a strong finish to the process in recent days when Hayes Pullard, Josh Shaw and Buck Allen each made it known that they would be returning. That was welcome news to a team that was looking to withstand the final year of NCAA sanctions on a strong note, but those hopes had already taken a beating with the announcements from the players who decided to leave.

The fact that Marqise Lee was declaring for the draft was understandable and expected. The others, however, brought varying degrees of skepticism as all could have benefited from another year playing for the Trojans. Dion Bailey was probably the player next most ready to leave, and you can make an argument that he had shown what he needed to show at safety after two years spent playing out of position at linebacker.

Marcus Martin was a first-team all-conference selection at center this year, but he will be coming off an injury during the draft process. Martin will be selected, but he would have benefited from a second year of playing at center, having spent his first two years at left guard. George Uko made progress this year and would have seen his exposure rise in 2014 as he would have combined with Leonard Williams to form the most dominant interior defensive line combo in the country.

[+] EnlargeXavier Grimble
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillPerhaps tight end Xavier Grimble could have been a star in Steve Sarkisian's offense.
Xavier Grimble is the one departure that makes the least sense on paper. Grimble had a nice season in 2013 and is certainly a talented player, but he had a chance to come back for 2014 in a system that produced the Mackey Award winner last season. You have to imagine there was a lot of opportunity for Grimble to improve his stock with increased production.

Not only were all five of these departures talented players with a lot of experience, the Trojans cannot replace them because of NCAA scholarship limits that are part of the final year of sanctions related to the Reggie Bush case. USC is allowed to sign a maximum of 19 players this year – four early enrollees which count against last year and 15 new signees on LOI day – and that number does not change, no matter how many players leave for the draft.

So which players will get first shots at replacing the early NFL departees?

At wide receiver, Darreus Rogers figures to move into the starting spot vacated by Lee across from Nelson Agholor. Rogers doesn’t offer the explosive tendencies of Lee or Agholor, but he is a big-bodied guy who can work the middle of the field and the intermediate routes with great success. Don’t be surprised if his touches skyrocket next season. In terms of the next “big-play” receiver, look for Steven Mitchell to make a run for that spot when he returns from injury, along with George Farmer.

Randall Telfer will move into the full-time starting role at tight end that he used to share with Grimble. If Telfer can stay healthy, he is more than capable of putting up big reception numbers of his own. Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick should also get a chance to show what he can do in the passing game.

There are plenty of options to replace Uko in the middle of the line. Delvon Simmons transferred in from Texas Tech last year, and he is a wide body. Kenny Bigelow looks ready to show what all the hype was about in his recruiting process, while a guy like Greg Townsend could get in the mix as well, if healthy. And don’t forget Antwaun Woods -- he started at nose last year but could get moved around by the new staff. Claude Pelon figures in the rotation as well, assuming he gets academically qualified.

Su’a Cravens is a good bet to fill the productive role that Bailey departs, and that could mean more playing time for guys like Leon McQuay and Gerald Bowman. It will be interesting, of course, to see what the new staff does with Shaw, who has shown the ability to play either corner or safety.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Martin
Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY SportsMarcus Martin's spot at center might be the hardest to fill in 2014.
The toughest spot to fill could be at center. Martin made the move last year after the coaches had taken a look at Max Tuerk, a move that didn’t work at the time because of snap fumble issues. Does Tuerk get another shot? What about someone like Cyrus Hobbi or Khaliel Rodgers? Maybe Toa Lobendahn as an early enrollee gets a look during spring ball. Lots of options here, with no clear answer yet.

Even with the obvious issues that present themselves because of the departures, there is still much to be thankful for on the USC end with those who stayed.

Pullard was the biggest key. He’s the leader of the defense both emotionally and on the field, especially during this time of a transition to a new system. That’s when it becomes even more important to have a player like Pullard, a three-year starter who has led the team in tackles in two seasons. You can be sure the coaches breathed a big sigh of relief with the news that he was staying.

The decisions to stay were also huge by Allen and Shaw. There’s a reason Allen was named the team MVP despite being limited to spot duty in the first five games of the season. When given his opportunity, Allen provided the spark that the offense needed to create an explosive presence on the ground. Allen certainly wasn’t the only USC ball-carrier who had success last year, but there was something different about the way he did it. He could be a natural fit in the new system.

Shaw was such a stabilizing presence in 2013, and his move back to corner was as important as any in terms of the USC defense eventually taking the top spot in the conference rankings. It would have been a big step back for that unit if he had left. He returns as one of the more experienced players around.

Finally, Aundrey Walker headed into 2013 as an inconsistent left tackle, but as the year went along he developed into a promising right guard who was just starting to tap into his enormous potential. An injury in the season finale sparked talks that he might leave early, but he will stay to offer another returning starter to a Trojans offensive line that was already losing two starters from last year. It could be a chance for Walker to shine in 2014 with an offensive line coach coming from one of the NFL’s power running teams.

All in all, it could have been better and it could have been worse for the Trojans when it comes to NFL early departures. If there is a silver lining for USC fans, it is the fact that this is the final year of the sanctions, and soon there will be a day when the departures don’t hurt so much. At least now Steve Sarkisian and his staff know what kind of roster they will have returning for next year.

WeAreSC roundtable: Beavers then Bears

November, 7, 2013
11/07/13
3:00
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WeAreSC staffers discuss last week's game and Saturday's matchup with Cal.

What was most impressive part of USC's victory against Oregon State?

[+] EnlargeEd Orgeron
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesInterim coach Ed Orgeron has led his Trojans to a 3-1 record since taking over.
Garry Paskwietz: I thought it was the way the Trojans physically controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. I completely understand that it’s one thing to do that against Oregon State and another to do it against Stanford, but lately the Trojans hadn’t put both sides of the ball together in one game for a while, so it was encouraging to see it happen in this game. This was particularly evident in how well the Trojans ran the ball and put pressure on Sean Mannion.

Johnny Curren: It was a phenomenal effort by tailbacks Javorius Allen and Silas Redd, as the Trojans amassed 242 rushing yards. But it wasn’t just the ball-carriers who made an impact. In fact, the performance of the offensive line might have been what was most impressive of all. Putting together their best outing of the season, they were an incredibly aggressive and cohesive unit. The lights-out night that Aundrey Walker had, in particular, was a positive development with an eye toward the rest of the season. If the USC ground game continues to roll like it did against OSU, there’s little doubt the Trojans will be finishing the 2013 campaign very strong.

Greg Katz: The most impressive part of the Trojans' victory was the way Ed Orgeron’s team kept its poise once the Beavers tied the game at 14-14. In the past, the Men of Troy might have folded at Reser Stadium, but this group was able to rise above the crowd noise, keep its composure and come right back to win going away. It was a major maturity step and possible turning point for the 2013 Trojans.




What is the key matchup of the USC-Cal game?

Paskwietz: USC vs. themselves. Things are going in a very positive direction right now for the Trojans, and on paper it doesn’t appear Cal should present an overwhelmingly tough matchup. But, as any college football fan knows, anything can happen on any given day. Think back to last year for the Trojans at the beginning of November when they hit the road for a game they were expected to win. If they had won in Arizona, it would have set up a huge showdown the following week at the Coliseum -- a very similar scenario to this year.

Curren: With Josh Shaw moving from safety to cornerback, the USC secondary has put together two consecutive solid outings after struggling at times earlier in the season, but it faces a big test this weekend in California’s uptempo, spread offense. Freshman quarterback Jared Goff leads a Golden Bears aerial attack that generates 351.1 passing yards per game -- the No. 8 mark in the FBS -- and he has three very talented receivers at his disposal in Chris Harper, Bryce Treggs and Kenny Lawler. With very little else clicking for Cal on either side of the ball, if the Trojans’ defensive backfield can keep those wideouts corralled while also taking advantage of a Goff mistake here or there -- which he’s been known to make on occasion -- USC should run away with the game.

Katz: The key matchup will not only will be the performance of the Trojans offensive line against the Bears defensive front, but the actual lineup of cardinal and gold players. The Trojans right side of the line actually looked pretty good against Oregon State with Max Tuerk at right tackle filling in for veteran Kevin Graf, and right guard Aundrey Walker having his best game as a Trojan. On the left side, senior John Martinez played a good game. Can this unit with or without Graf (ankle) continue to grow and open up big holes for the Trojans' obvious wealth of tailback riches?




What was the most memorable moment from USC vs. Cal in Memorial Stadium?

Paskwietz: It's the 2007 game when both teams came in ranked in the top 25. The game was played in a hard-driving rain, and the Trojans were only able to throw for 129 yards. But senior tailback Chauncey Washington had the game of his career with 29 carries for 220 yards and a touchdown to lead USC to a 24-17 victory. Washington had spent two years on academic probation and had to pay his own way at USC, so to see him rewarded for his patience with a performance like that was truly memorable.

Curren: It wasn’t a positive memory for the Trojans, but the 2003 USC-Cal matchup was as drama-filled as it gets. In a game featuring an incredible three overtimes marked by wild and unpredictable plays, including a Hershel Dennis fumble, as well as a field-goal block by Gregg Guenther, the No. 3 Trojans wound up losing 34-31. The difference was a Tyler Fredrickson field goal. In looking back, the most significant thing to come from the game was that it really marked a turning point of sorts under Pete Carroll, as the Trojans would go on to win an incredible 34 consecutive games following that defeat.

Katz: Unfortunately for Trojans fans it would be the 2003 triple-overtime loss to the Bears. The Dennis fumble and the game-winning 38-yard field goal by Frederickson in OT was at the time a killer. However, it seems that painful loss was inspirational the rest of the way, as former Trojans head coach Pete Carroll never again lost to Cal during his marvelous tenure.

3 up, 3 down: Notre Dame 14, USC 10

October, 20, 2013
10/20/13
5:00
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LOS ANGELES – A look at the positives and negatives for the Trojans after the 14-10 loss to Notre Dame on Saturday.

THREE UP

1. Nelson Agholor: Agholor stepped up for the second consecutive game, showcasing the unique playmaking skills that have had USC coaches and fans buzzing about the sophomore receiver’s potential since last season. He hauled in six passes for 89 yards against Notre Dame, while also making a huge impact on special teams, returning four punts for 100 yards. One of those returns, a 48-yarder in the second quarter, set up an Andre Heidari field goal.

2. Silas Redd: For a player who just returned to practice full-time a couple of weeks ago, Redd’s outing was more than impressive. Finishing with 112 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries, the senior running back was particularly effective in the first half. Unfortunately for the Trojans, he was left standing on the sidelines for large stretches of time during the final two quarters, his role having been inexplicably diminished.

3. Su’a Cravens: Cravens has been one of the most consistent performers on defense throughout the season -- a trend that continued on Saturday. He came up clutch early when he stopped running back Cam McDaniel on a fourth-down play as the fighting Irish were knocking on the door from inside the USC 1-yard line, and then again in the fourth quarter when he forced a McDaniel fumble and recovered it, returning it to the Notre Dame 34-yard line. Cravens finished with six tackles, including two for a loss.

THREE DOWN

1. Second-half offensive line play: The Trojans offense had every opportunity to put this game away in the second half, beginning four-straight drives inside the Notre Dame 50-yard line, but they just couldn’t move the ball, and the primary reason was the play up front. When members of the offensive line weren’t committing penalties -- including two crucial holding infractions each by Aundrey Walker and Max Tuerk -- they were being out-muscled by the physical Fighting Irish defensive line. As a whole, USC was flagged 11 times, and offensive coordinator Clay Helton didn’t appear to help matters on this night, executing a game-plan that appeared to be conservative, while also hiding Redd in the second half.

2. USC pass defense: Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees, who came into the matchup with USC having completed just 41.7 percent of his passes over his last three games, looked like a world-beater against the Trojans, going 14 of 21 (67 percent) for 166 yards and two touchdowns in just a little over two quarters of play. Tight end Troy Niklas was a particular thorn in the side of the secondary, which struggled tremendously in pass coverage for the third game in a row. The USC defense did improve in the second half, but that likely had more to do with the ineffectiveness of Fighting Irish backup signal-caller Andrew Hendrix than anything else.

3. Andre Heidari: Heidari finished 1 of 3 on field goal attempts, with his two misses serving as the difference between USC and a victory over their intersectional rival. What made those failed attempts -- which both sailed wide-right -- especially disheartening was the fact that each of them were from what most would consider a makeable distance – 40 and 46 yards. Having lost faith in Heidari late, the Trojans completely abandoned the kicking option, choosing instead to go for it on fourth down.

USC lineman Martin puts team first

September, 19, 2013
9/19/13
9:00
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Making the full-time transition from guard to center just last spring, Marcus Martin certainly doesn’t appear to be going through any growing pains in his first season as the starter at the new position. Anchoring an offensive line which spearheads a USC rushing attack that averages 196 yards per game, the 6-foot-3 and 310-pound junior has been one of the unit’s most sturdy contributors.

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

[+] EnlargeMarcus Martin
Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY SportsTrojans center Marcus Martin says the offensive lineman are starting to come together as a unit and play consistently.
“I was dealing with nausea, headaches ... stuff like that,” said Martin, who has started 23 times for the Trojans. “I just had to play through it. I knew that I had to tough it out for the team.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five things to watch: USC at Hawaii 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roundtable: Top USC fall camp storyline 

August, 22, 2013
8/22/13
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Roundtable with WeAreSC staffers: What was the most notable storyline of fall camp?

Garry Paskwietz
The quarterback competition was the most dominant storyline of camp but that battle was expected. The shuffling of the starting line-up along the offensive line, however, was not expected.

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While USC coach Lane Kiffin did praise the way that the defense performed on a hot, balmy Tuesday, the topic of injuries quickly turned into the dominant theme of the post-practice media scrum. Kiffin called the current situation “very concerning,” particularly with the team’s season opener just a little over a week away.

“We had 21 guys today that didn’t practice, [and] there were more that couldn’t have contact in the yellow jerseys,” Kiffin said. “You start getting into the 20s with guys not practicing at all – we’ve got some really short lines and some really unfamiliar names playing with the first and second units, so obviously we didn’t plan for that to happen.”

Among those sidelined were Dion Bailey, Su’a Cravens, Kevon Seymour, Morgan Breslin, J.R. Tavai, Scott Starr, Victor Blackwell, Ty Isaac, Xavier Grimble, Randall Telfer, Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick and perhaps most noticeably Aundrey Walker, who left Monday's practice early with an undisclosed injury.

“Aundrey wasn’t able to practice today,” Kiffin said. “We anticipate him practicing tomorrow.”

Marcus Martin
AP Photo/Ben LiebenbergUSC center Marcus Martin returned to practice Tuesday.
On the positive side, center Marcus Martin returned Tuesday after getting nicked up during the team’s scrimmage on Sunday night, so the offensive line featured a starting lineup that was comprised throughout practice of Kevin Graf at right tackle, John Martinez at right guard, Martin at center, Max Tuerk at left guard and Chad Wheeler at left tackle.

With the three top tight ends atop the depth chart out in Grimble, Telfer and Cope-Fitzpatrick, the USC offense relied on the very unlikely trio of Chris Willson, Shane Sullivan and Kevin Greene -- a development Kiffin brought up as an example of a position group decimated by injuries.

“One [Willson] was a quarterback a week ago, one [Sullivan] we’re just learning his name, and the other one [Greene] was a defensive end a week ago,” Kiffin said. “They’re doing the best that they can.”

Highlights from practice:

  • The Trojans spent the majority of the day in an extensive 11-on-11 period, with Kessler starting the session with the first unit at quarterback, although Wittek also saw plenty of time with the ones throughout the course of the day.
  • Defensively, the No. 1 defense was made up of a group that included Torin Harris and Anthony Brown at cornerback, Josh Shaw and Demetrius Wright at the safety spots, Hayes Pullard – in a yellow jersey – and Lamar Dawson at inside linebacker, Devon Kennard and Jabari Ruffin at outside linebacker, George Uko and Leonard Williams at defensive end and Antwaun Woods at nose tackle.
  • Kessler got things started with a couple of nice quick strikes to Marqise Lee – also in a yellow jersey – right off the bat before connecting with De’von Flournoy for a first-down pick-up. Wittek followed that with a connection to Darreus Rogers for 10 yards. Javorius Allen took a handoff a short while later, but outside linebacker Charles Burks – who has impressed lately – wrapped him up immediately for a loss in the backfield. Justin Davis followed that with a nifty run in which he made a nice cut right after he got past the line for a big gain. Wittek tried to hit Sullivan in the flat, but Dawson came up and nearly picked the ball off. Allen broke off a nice, 10-yard run. Uko, Ruffin and Dawson each racked up sacks. Wittek came up with the play of the day shortly thereafter, hitting Nelson Agholor on a deep throw down the sideline over Harris for a gain of about 45 yards.
  • A brief red-zone period immediately followed, with Kessler opening things up by connecting with Flournoy for a touchdown. Kessler also connected on short passes to Sullivan, Agholor and Pinner. Wittek hit Agholor for a short gain, but he also had a ball batted down by Hutchings at the goal line. Tre Madden finished the session off by plowing into the end zone from two yards out.
  • The team finished the day with each quarterback getting a chance to lead the offense in a two-minute drill, but both drives stalled without a score.

Kiffin revealed that Wednesday’s scrimmage won’t be particularly physical – in fact, there won’t be any live tackling – but it could provide a potential look at how certain position battles are shaping up and how the rotations might look. Kiffin plans to break the team into two groups, with one of those being comprised of the players expected to play most.

“We will divide the guys so that we can really practice a game for the first time where, really, the main guys are together on one sideline, so that we can get used to the substitutions on offense, defense and special teams,” Kiffin said. “We can get used to the offense coming to the sideline with the coaches, and the defense coming to the sideline, and having a break between series. And then basically a service team will be on the other side.”
As the Trojans enter the final week of fall camp, the team held a high-energy practice Monday with players sensing that game week is near.

“I feel like we have things going in the right direction,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said. “It’s easy to have good energy when you’re in a night practice at the Coliseum but it’s another to come out today in the heat and respond the way they did. I thought that was a very good test for our team.”

The Trojans moved out of their camp dorms Sunday and into their fall housing. They will get a day off on Thursday and then begin game week practices on Friday in preparation for the matchup with Hawaii next week.

“Yeah, we’re getting a little antsy,” USC quarterback Max Wittek said. “It’s human nature at some point to want to play somebody with a different color jersey.”

Injuries continue to be an issue as Aundrey Walker and Demetrius Wright left practice today, but the good news was that Silas Redd got the most action he’s had all camp and Marqise Lee was basically back to normal with a full day of work.

“Hopefully we can get mostly healthy in the next few days,” Kiffin said.

For Lee, the yellow jersey was still on but the competition mode was in full effect and he made several plays. He beat Chris Hawkins on a pass down the sideline, caught a nice over the shoulder ball from Wittek and had a short touchdown at the end of the day when he caught a screen pass from Cody Kessler and got a good block from Nathan Guertler on Hawkins to scoot untouched into the end zone.

“I feel great,” Lee said. “I was just going out there and catching the ball. I’m ready to play a game, everybody is ready to play a game. I know the defense is ready.”

Lee gave a lot of praise to the unit he faces every day in practice and says he has paired with his roommate to try and fire up his teammates.

“The secondary is amazing right now,” Lee said. “They are going a great job, starting with AB (Anthony Brown). He uses the sideline really well to push you over there. Me and Josh Shaw are roommates so we started jawing out here to get guys going. Once we started, he went to George Uko and got him going, so I went to Marcus Martin on our line. It was on after that.”

Lee also gave his thoughts on the pending quarterback battle.

“I’m glad I’m not the coach in this case with the quarterbacks. This one is on Kiff’s back,” Lee said while smiling.

Kiffin had no announcement on a starting quarterback and gave no indication of when an answer is coming.

As for other news on the injury front, Kevon Seymour was back Monday in limited action after leaving the practice on Sunday night. Scott Starr, Morgan Breslin, Dion Bailey, Torin Harris and Ryan Henderson did not practice.

Marcus Martin sat out after leaving practice on Sunday so Max Tuerk took the majority of first unit snaps at center with Aundrey Walker at left guard and John Martinez at right guard. Abe Markowitz also took some reps with the first unit at center while Giovanni Di Poalo was with the 1’s at left guard after Walker went out.

Redd looked solid in his extended reps and he wore a yellow jersey along with fellow tailbacks Tre Madden and Justin Davis. Ty Isaac and Buck Allen were also available so it was a good day for depth at the spot.

The most productive player was Quinton Powell, who continues to make his presence felt from the inside linebacker position. Powell started the day with a sack on Kessler, stripped Ty Isaac of the ball after a long run and added a late interception of a ball that had been tipped in the air.

Other highlight plays included nice catches from reserve tight ends Kevin Greene and Chris Willson. The Willson grab in particular was a pretty one-handed effort. Wittek hit Jahleel Pinner with a 20-yard pass down the middle but Leon McQuay was right there and would have smacked him in a game setting. McQuay also had a blocked kick in a field goal drill, something he has done a few times this camp. Kenny Bigelow, Anthony Sarao and Devian Shelton all had sacks. Shelton also got bulldozed by Tre Madden in the flat and Madden went for about ten extra yards.

Quotebook

“I was scared for a moment. I took my time getting up because they didn’t know what was wrong but as soon as I got a chance to get up and move around I was fine. I kept telling coach Kiffin I was ready to go back in. I’m solid now, I’m ready to go.” -- Marqise Lee, talking about his bone bruise injury suffered on Aug. 9.
LOS ANGELES -- Taking part in the first of two practices scheduled for the day, the Trojans hit Brian Kennedy-Howard Jones Field on Sunday morning for an upbeat practice in shorts, shoulder pads and helmets.

There was an emphasis on the ground game Sunday, and Buck Allen, Justin Davis and Ty Isaac all looked sharp, with Davis receiving his biggest workload since going out with an injury early in fall camp.

[+] EnlargeJustin Davis
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsFreshman running back Justin Davis received extensive work Sunday morning after returning from injury.
Sunday also marked the return of John Martinez to the first-team offense at right guard after running with the second group for the past few days behind Aundrey Walker.

Among those not participating was a group that included Victor Blackwell, Xavier Grimble, Silas Redd, Tre Madden, D.J. Morgan, Cyrus Hobbi, Dion Bailey, Torin Harris, Morgan Breslin, Antwaun Woods and Cody Temple. Hayes Pullard was dressed with a yellow jersey on, but he didn’t take part in any team drills. Su'a Cravens began the day on the field, but was quickly seen on the sideline with ice on his right knee.

With Pullard out, Lamar Dawson ran with the first group at MIKE linebacker, with freshman Quinton Powell -- whom USC head coach Lane Kiffin praised following Saturday’s practice -- lining up at the WILL spot. Josh Shaw and Demetrius Wright started at the two safety positions, and in an interesting move, George Uko slid over from defensive end to nose tackle to take the place of Woods, with Leonard Williams and J.R. Tavai lining up at end.

During a short 11-on-11 period early on that featured Cody Kessler running with the No. 1 unit to open things up, Uko tracked down Allen at the line to hold the run for no gain. Davis, who might have had his best day since going out early this month, ran right on the next play, showing a nice burst and cutting up field for a gain of around 8 yards. Isaac followed that with a very physical run off guard for 10 yards before Devian Shelton and Co. stopped him. Max Wittek hit Nelson Agholor with a quick pass to the outside for a first-down pickup before he received a solid pop from Leon McQuay III. Dawson came in to tackle Davis for a loss. Allen took a handoff inside before bouncing it out for a gain of 7 or 8 yards. Isaac rushed right soon thereafter, but Leonard Williams came up and laid a solid hit on the big freshman to send him flying out of bounds after a short gain.

The team then got together for some work against the scout teams, with the offensive period highlighted by some nice carries by Davis, as well as deep Wittek tosses over the middle to Agholor and De'Von Flournoy, and completions from Kessler to Isaac and Marqise Lee. This session also featured some interesting moves along the offensive line for a short spell, with Martinez seeing some time at left guard, Chad Wheeler at right tackle and Walker at left guard.

There was also a late 11-on-11 situational drill that had Kessler leading the first-team offense against the first-team defense in some last-minute scenarios. Kessler hit Darreus Rogers over the middle on one play for a gain of 15, then found Lee in the corner of the end zone on a 40-yard heave.

USC finished the day with some extensive special teams work, with the kickoff return and field goal blocking groups receiving the most work.

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