USC Trojans: Cyrus Hobbi
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.
Both quarterbacks had their opportunities in the scrimmage, which was a different format than normal. Instead of having one quarterback with the first unit and the other with the second, the quarterbacks alternated series with the first unit while going against the service team defense.
The first interception came on the opening drive. Kessler had driven the offense into the red zone -- helped by a nice Tre Madden toss sweep behind blocking from Chad Wheeler and Jahleel Pinner -- but was intercepted by walk-on Nick Schlossberg on a slant pass attempt to Marqise Lee.
Max Wittek came in and was promptly sacked by Delvon Simmons. Wittek had a long completion to Xavier Grimble on a real strong throw. Justin Davis got the ball inside the 5-yard line, but the drive stalled and the offense settled for a 21-yard Andre Heidari field goal.
It was supposed to be a non-tackling scrimmage, but Torin Harris must not have got that memo because he laid a pretty good lick on walk-on receiver Christian Guzman. George Uko added a sack.
Kessler was picked on the next series by walk-on John Auran.
Wittek hit Agholor deep on the first play of the next drive. Schlossberg came on a blitz on the next play and was met by a terrific block from Javorius Allen. Kevin Greene had a sack on third down to force a 42-yard field goal by Heidari.
Marcus Martin started at center but he went out as a precaution. Max Tuerk was moved to center with Nathan Guertler stepping in at left guard.
Chris Hawkins had a nice pass break-up of a Kessler attempt to Lee, resulting in another Heidari field goal.
Lee went out later in the scrimmage and was seen with ice on his shoulder on the bench. By the end of the scrimmage the ice was off, and both Lee and Kiffin said things were “fine”.
The rest of the scrimmage basically belonged to Nelson Agholor. He caught two touchdowns from Kessler and one from Wittek to end the day with nine catches for 250 yards and three touchdowns. Lee had eight grabs for 107 yards.
There were plenty of players who sat out the scrimmage due to various injuries. Dion Bailey, Morgan Breslin, J.R. Tavai, Ryan Henderson, Marquis Simmons, Scott Starr, Cyrus Hobbi, Cody Temple, Silas Redd, Jordan Simmons, Victor Blackwell, D.J. Morgan, Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick, Kevon Seymour and Randall Telfer were all sidelinded.
The starting lineups were as follows:
Offense: Kessler, Madden, Pinner, Lee, Agholor, Grimble, Wheeler, Tuerk, Martin, John Martinez, Kevin Graf.
Defense: Devon Kennard, Leonard Williams, Antwaun Woods, Uko, Jabari Ruffin, Hayes Pullard, Lamar Dawson, Anthony Brown, Harris, Josh Shaw, Su'a Cravens.
The Trojans actually put up some good offensive numbers in 2012, including averages of 32 points and 432 yards per game. The struggles came in areas such as turnovers (34, fourth-worst in FBS), 3rd down conversions (34.2 percent, No. 105 in FBS) and red zone execution (74.5 percent). Kiffin has said he wants to return to a more physical approach in 2013 with a run game that can be relied on to close out games when needed.
The competition to replace Matt Barkley will be one of the most highly watched position battles in college football. Right now there are three players in the mix -- Cody Kessler, Max Wittek and Max Browne -- although most speculation has it as a two-man race between third-year players Kessler and Wittek. Kessler has gained a lot of momentum since his performance in spring, when he didn’t throw an interception in five scrimmages, and has continued to look sharp in summer throwing sessions. Wittek has the experience of starting two games at the end of the 2012 season, but injuries and illness have limited him in spring and summer drills. Wittek is known for having the bigger arm while Kiffin has described Kessler as a “gamer”. Browne is a true freshman with loads of potential but the two guys ahead of him have a lot of time in the system, so it stands to reason that one of the veterans will land the job.
Kiffin has described this as the deepest and most talented running back group of his tenure as USC coach. We see no reason to argue, as there is a nice blend of experience, toughness, speed and ability. Silas Redd is the expected starter and showed last season that he can run hard and carry the primary load. Redd is coming off a knee injury in spring ball he is projected to return in time for fall camp. As for the rotation behind Redd, that is where things get interesting.
Tre Madden made a huge splash in spring of 2012 when he moved from linebacker and dazzled the coaches in practice before suffering a knee injury and missing the entire season. Madden will be given every opportunity to show that he is back to form. D.J. Morgan brings a speed element, but he also has been banged up and will need to show that he can stay healthy and hold on to the ball. Javorius Allen enters his third year and showed promise in spring. Then there are the two freshmen -- Justin Davis and Ty Isaac. Davis was one of the stars of spring, as he looked very good as a slasher. Isaac is a big back who will try to make an instant impact in camp with limited reps to go around.
The Trojans return a pair of fullbacks in Soma Vainuku and Jahleel Pinner. Both players will be entering their second year of on-field action, and they are expected to play a bigger role.
It’s always a good situation when the top player at his position returns for another season. Marqise Lee won the Biletnikoff Award in 2012 as the best receiver in college football and has the ability to make a run at the Heisman Trophy this season along with securing his spot as the all-time leading receiver in USC history. Lee will also be the unquestioned leader of the Trojans and seems very comfortable in that role so far.
On the other side of Lee, Nelson Agholor appears set to show that he has similar big play ability. When Lee was sidelined for part of spring with a knee injury, Agholor was the most productive player for the Trojans. Victor Blackwell appears ready for a bigger role after a solid spring and true freshman Darreus Rogers was impressive in summer workouts. Fifth-year senior De'Von Flournoy offers an experienced option as well. Depth could be an issue for this group after season-ending knee injuries to George Farmer and Steven Mitchell.
The Trojans don’t have great depth at tight end, but the position group is still strong. Randall Telfer and Xavier Grimble are basically co-starters, a talented pair of 6-foot-5, 250-pound options who can catch and block with equal skill. Don’t be surprised if they put up bigger numbers than they did last season. Both players suffered knee injuries in spring ball, which meant an extended audition for sophomore Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick, who passed with flying colors. Cope-Fitzpatrick is another big and athletic guy who is clearly ready for a bigger role.
This is the position group that will need to come together for the USC offense to achieve the stated goals of being more physical and controlling the line of scrimmage. There are five players with starting experience returning with Marcus Martin moving from guard to center as a replacement for Khaled Holmes. Martin showed a lot of promise when he was moved midway through spring ball.
On the right side of the line, Kevin Graf and John Martinez return for their third year of starting next to each other at tackle and guard. Both players are on the preseason Outland Trophy watch list. Max Tuerk follows up a true freshman season that saw him named an honorable mention all-conference selection at left tackle by moving to left guard. Aundrey Walker is once again at left tackle and might be the critical piece for the line. Walker has loads of physical potential but there have also been issues with work ethic and preparation, which led the coaches to consider putting Tuerk back at tackle in the spring. If Walker can match the effort from the rest of the group this could be a pretty good line.
For the first time in many seasons there are some solid reserve options including Jordan Simmons, Cyrus Hobbi, Chad Wheeler, Nico Falah and Khaliel Rodgers. Abe Markowitz might also be available as a sixth-year player. He practiced with the team in voluntary workouts all summer, but there has been no confirmation on his status.
-- Statistics were compiled by ESPN Stats and Information
New influence at the top
While the USC offensive line did allow a conference-best 17 total sacks in 2012, they also struggled against the more physical defensive fronts that they faced – most notably Stanford and Notre Dame. With that in mind, it’s obvious that in order for the Trojans to get back to their winning ways next season, they have to establish a tougher brand of play up front on offense. In an effort to do just that, Kiffin brought in highly regarded offensive line guru Mike Summers to team with James Cregg, the coach of the position group for the past three seasons. And with the unit showing flashes of improved play, with a nasty demeanor that wasn’t always there last fall, the addition of Summers – who has 32 years of experience – appears to have paid off. Still, as a whole, the Trojans offensive line isn’t where it needs to be just yet, because while they did make strides, they also had their issues on occasion when going up against the new-look USC defense. They still have much to prove, but if they’re able to take that next step under the watchful eyes of Summers and Cregg this offseason, there’s reason to believe that the Trojans will be in good shape here in the fall.
Center of it all
Walker ready to make a statement at LT?
Another position of interest heading into the spring was the always-crucial left tackle spot, manned by a combination of Aundrey Walker and Tuerk in 2012. But with Tuerk’s move to center, and eventually left guard, this spot was all Walker’s for the taking this spring. Walker, whose career has been marked by its ups and downs so far, certainly appeared to play at a higher level than he has before, even holding off a push by redshirt freshman Chad Wheeler, who eventually went down with a PCL injury in his knee. Still, Walker continued to have his battles with consistency and questions remain. Is Walker the answer at left tackle? Can he provide the USC offense with a sturdy presence at the position that it will desperately need? Might he better be suited to play at guard – a move that was brought up by the coaches, but never acted upon – with Tuerk lining back over at tackle? For Walker, whose raw physical skills are undeniable, it’s how he continues to develop this offseason that will play a vital part in determining those answers.
Unexpected position battle
When the post-spring depth chart was released back in April, the most surprising bit of information revealed was that Kevin Graf – a tried and tested senior with two years of starting experience – was listed as sharing the top spot at right tackle with Wheeler, with the signature “OR” designation separating their names. It was a bit of a stunner on several levels. One, Graf had appeared to assert himself over the last two years as a dependable performer with a wealth of experience. Two, Wheeler had just been moved over to left tackle before the spring to challenge Walker. Instead, now it’s Graf that Wheeler will push this offseason on the right side. Having shown tremendous potential in the limited time that he took part in spring drills, Wheeler could make things interesting, but with a veteran with 25 starts to his credit standing in front of him, he certainly has an uphill battle on his hands. In either case, it would appear that the coaching staff has sent a message to Graf, and it will be interesting to see how he responds.
“We really wanted to focus on keeping guys staying up today and that usually happens when we don’t go full pads,” Kiffin said. “I thought we were still able to have a physical practice.”
- From deep in his own end, Cody Kessler stood in the pocket against strong pressure and fired late to Nelson Agholor for 12 yards and a first down.
- Max Wittek had his chance with the ball near his goal line and he found Victor Blackwell with a quick strike, and Blackwell put on the jets to race for a long touchdown despite valiant pursuit from Leon McQuay III.
- Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick made a nice catch of a low-thrown ball across the middle from Wittek.
- McQuay popped the ball loose from Cope-Fitzpatrick after a short catch.
One of the most fiery drills of any practice is when the ball is placed inside the 5-yard line and the offense takes its shots at the end zone.
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The news was more dire for Farmer after Kiffin confirmed the earlier media reports of a torn ACL and MCL in his left knee, which will force him to miss the 2013 season. For Cravens, he has a torn meniscus in his right knee and will undergo surgery Friday. The injury is the same as the one suffered by Silas Redd. Cravens is expected to miss 4-6 weeks and will be back in plenty of time for fall camp.
The Trojans entered the Thursday practice session with 20 players out of action because of injury and two more left practice – Torin Harris and Cyrus Hobbi.
“I don’t see any way we could practice like this in the fall. We wouldn’t be able to play a game,” Kiffin said. “Of the 22 guys who ended up being out today, 18 of them are scholarship players. With the roster reductions we already have we would not be able to give up that many players. We will start fall camp practicing this way, but I don’t think we will end fall camp this way.”
There was some good news on the injury front as Marqise Lee returned, albeit in a limited role, after missing two-and-a-half weeks with a knee injury. Lee seemed to be running fine with no major issues but he was held out of contact team drills. Kevon Seymour and Jordan Simmons also returned to action.
“Marqise was back, which was obviously good to see,” Kiffin said. “He basically took part in the first hour of practice and we’ll add to him as we go.”
George Uko was out today and J.R. Tavai took his spot with the first unit at defensive end. During the final team drill, Aundrey Walker was out and Max Tuerk had moved to center with Hobbi out, so the first unit left side of the line was walk-on Nathan Guertler at tackle and Giovanni Di Poalo at guard.
With Farmer out, that means opportunities for players such as Victor Blackwell and De’Von Flournoy along with first-year players Darreus Rogers and Steven Mitchell. Kiffin also made sure to note the high level of play from Nelson Agholor this spring when discussing the receiver group.
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“I really thought the front seven on the first-unit defense played well,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said. “Hayes Pullard played great at linebacker while George Uko and Leonard Williams were dominant up front. The defense is really picking things up with the new scheme. I can’t imagine being more pleased.”
Pullard led the way for the defense with six tackles, including one for loss, while Kenny Bigelow added two sacks and Anthony Sarao had four tackles.
The offense was led by Cody Kessler, who continues to split time with Max Browne while Max Wittek is out with a knee injury. Kessler (13-19, 161 yards, one TD) provided the highlight play of the day with a 75-yard touchdown strike to Nelson Agholor while Browne (6-9, 69 yards) added a big play of his own with a 52-yard completion to Darreus Rogers. Buck Allen was the top rusher on the day with 11 carries for 65 yards.
“Kessler played great today,” Kiffin said. “He just continues to make plays. I thought Buck had a good day, too. He’s had a good camp overall.”
Kiffin confirmed that the injury to Wittek – who is expected to return to the field when the team comes back from spring break on March 26 – likely means that the quarterback competition will not be settled by the end of spring.
Both players suffered knee injuries last Saturday prior to the Coliseum scrimmage that USC coach Lane Kiffin described as “not serious.”
Lee was fully dressed but did not participate in drills while Wittek was not in pads and he wore a sleeve brace around his right knee.
“I’ve got a sprained MCL,” Wittek said. “Nothing is torn, so that’s a positive, and it can’t get any worse so it’s just a matter of pain tolerance to when I can return. I’m rehabbing 2-3 times a day and if I can’t get back by the end of the week, I should be fine to go when we get back from spring break. You never want an injury but if it’s going to happen it’s good to happen now.
“The injury happened while I was holding for a placekick, kind of a silly way to happen. If there’s a bad snap again on a kick, if it’s not in a game I will probably get out of the way next time. But if the team needs me to be there, I’ll be there.”
MVP of the day: True freshman Su’a Cravens put together his best practice of spring with two interceptions and a key pass break-up, all against Max Browne. The first interception was an overthrown attempt by Browne to hit Xavier Grimble and Cravens simply played center field to get the pick. The second pick was an aggressive break on the ball by Cravens while the pass break-up came over the middle on a pass attempt for Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick.
“Su’a is a very special player,” Kiffin said. “He prepares so well, always soaking things up, watching film. He’s similar to Robert Woods and Nickell Robey in that way and both of those guys started from day one.”
Kiffin said Cravens is already at 220 pounds.
It’s easy to notice the upbeat style of play through the first two days of USC spring ball, and it was evident on Thursday with a team drill that featured some explosive plays from the offense.
The team drill started off strong for the defense, as the offense was backed up near its own goal line on the south end of Brian Kennedy-Howard Jones Field, and the defense had some stops, led by the interior front with Antwaun Woods, George Uko and Leonard Williams.
After the offense switched to the north end of the field, however, things began to change. Max Wittek hit Nelson Agholor for a short gain, and Agholor showed his burst of speed to outrun the secondary and make it a long gain. With the ball placed again deep in the offense's end, Silas Redd took a handoff and went 85 yards down the left sideline before being driven out at the 10-yard line by Kevon Seymour.
“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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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.
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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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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Final Washington State 45 Colorado State 48 Final 20 Fresno State 20 25 USC 45 Final Buffalo 24 San Diego State 49 Final Tulane 21 Louisiana-Lafayette 24
Final Pittsburgh 30 Bowling Green 27 Final Utah State 21 23 Northern Illinois 14
Final Marshall 31 Maryland 20 Final Syracuse 21 Minnesota 17 Final Brigham Young 16 Washington 31
Final Rutgers 16 Notre Dame 29 Final Cincinnati 17 North Carolina 39 Final Miami (FL) 9 18 Louisville 36 Final Michigan 14 Kansas State 31
Final Middle Tennessee 6 Navy 24 Final Ole Miss 25 Georgia Tech 17 Final 10 Oregon 30 Texas 7 Final 14 Arizona State 23 Texas Tech 37
Final Arizona 42 Boston College 19 Final Virginia Tech 12 17 UCLA 42 Final Rice 7 Mississippi State 44 Final 24 Duke 48 21 Texas A&M 52
Final Nebraska 24 22 Georgia 19 Final UNLV 14 North Texas 36 Final Iowa 14 16 LSU 21 Final 19 Wisconsin 24 9 South Carolina 34 Final 5 Stanford 20 4 Michigan State 24 Final 15 UCF 52 6 Baylor 42
Final 13 Oklahoma State 31 8 Missouri 41 Final 12 Clemson 40 7 Ohio State 35