USC Trojans: Jordan Austin

No position group at USC entered the spring surrounded by more uncertainty than the offensive line. With the key losses of Marcus Martin, Kevin Graf, John Martinez and Abe Markowitz, a new position coach in Tim Drevno, and the offense transitioning into Steve Sarkisian’s up-tempo, shotgun-based attack, no one knew quite what to expect. While there was certainly plenty of good to take away from their performance this spring, this is still a unit with more than a few question marks.

Both guard spots open

[+] EnlargeMax Tuerk
Kelley L Cox/USA TODAY SportsNo matter the position, Max Tuerk figures to have a starting job on USC's OL.
With only eight healthy scholarship players available, it was hard to ever get a real solid read on the offensive line, and as Sarkisian recently noted, this is a unit that will need to be solidified in the coming months.

That’s particularly the case at the guard positions, where, during spring drills, the Trojans featured a starting duo of early-entrant freshman Toa Lobendahn at left guard and second-year freshman Khaliel Rodgers at right guard.

And while both players – particularly Lobendahn -- showed promise, the entire competition at those spots is set to change dramatically as the Trojans gain an influx of talent from incoming freshmen as well as players returning from injury.

Of those players on the mend, senior Aundrey Walker, who is returning from a broken ankle, will be watched with particular interest. Establishing himself as a reliable starter at right guard in 2013 after an up-and-down 2012 campaign at tackle, he possesses veteran experience that could be invaluable to this unit.

Jordan Simmons, returning from a torn ACL, is a big mauler who was really starting to stand out in practice prior to his injury in the fall, and he’s another player who could make a run at a starting job on the interior.

Of course, in the case of both Walker and Simmons, it’s how their recovery goes, and what kind of shape they come back in -- particularly with the conditioning required for the new offense -- that will likely play the biggest role in determining whether or not they’re able to jump in and perform at a high level when fall camp opens up.

And then there is fifth-year senior Giovanni Di Poalo, as well as a pair of incoming freshmen guard candidates -- Damien Mama and Viane Talamaivao. Both youngsters arrive not only with more than their fair share of accolades, but also with unique talent and tremendous size -- giving them the look of potential instant impact performers.

Center of attention

With Martin off to the NFL, one of the new staff’s biggest priorities heading into spring practice was to find a capable starter at center. Max Tuerk, a tried and tested veteran who started 13 games at left guard in 2013, and the majority of the prior season at left tackle, wound up getting the call. While he did have some occasional difficulties in the snapping department, he performed solidly for the most part.

Chris Brown
Blair Angulo/ESPNIncoming freshman Chris Brown has been taking a lot of reps at right tackle during summer workouts.
Still, while Sarkisian lauded Tuerk’s overall ability during the recent Pac-12 football coaches teleconference, he also appeared to leave the door open for competition through fall camp, so this isn’t over just yet. Both Di Poalo and Lobendahn lined up at the position in the spring, and have continued to do so this summer during the team’s volunteer workouts. Talamaivao is another key name to watch here, as he too, has been taking reps at this spot over the course of the last week. It will also be interesting to see if Mama gets a look here when he arrives on campus.

If Sarkisian and Co. did decide to go with someone other than Tuerk here, it’s a virtual certainty that the junior would still line up as a starter somewhere else. Arguably the Trojans’ sturdiest pound-for-pound offensive lineman, he could conceivably slide back over to left guard or either of the tackle spots without a hitch.

Stability at tackle

While the interior of the line still isn’t totally set, the Trojans do appear to be in better shape at both of the tackle spots -- at least when it comes to the starters.

No player drew more praise from Sarkisian following spring drills than third-year sophomore left tackle Chad Wheeler. Having started every game last season, he looks primed for a fantastic 2014 campaign.

Over on the right side, the emergence of Zach Banner -- who sat out most of last season after having hip surgery -- was one of the great revelations of the spring. Performing at the highest level of his career, the 6-foot-9, 345-pounder took over with the No. 1 group in place of Nathan Guertler midway through camp and never looked back. Considering the fact that he said that he wasn’t even quite back to 100 percent during those workouts, there’s reason to believe he’s only going to get better, and it will be interesting to see just how much farther he can continue to progress this offseason.

Still, Drevno needs to find out who else he can count on to contribute at tackle, if nothing else, to provide depth. Early entrant freshman Jordan Austin and Guertler were the primary backups in the spring, and then there’s also Nico Falah -- returning from a back injury. Highly touted incoming freshman Chris Brown has also been taking reps at right tackle during summer drills.
LOS ANGELES -- USC Trojans true freshman offensive left guard Toa Lobendahn stood in the west end zone of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and wondered if he had really started in the annual spring game on Saturday in front of 17,500 tanning, cardinal and gold-clad fans.

“It was overwhelming. Well, not really overwhelming but joyful,” Lobendahn said moments after completing his first spring game. “It was great being in front of all these fans.”

It’s been quite a spring of learning, performing and adjusting to life on a college campus for Lobendahn, who left La Habra (Calif.) High after the 2013 fall semester of his senior year to enroll in time for spring practice.

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.

Drevno ready to start his dream job

March, 13, 2014
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LOS ANGELES -- When word of new Trojans offensive line coach Tim Drevno was first announced by head coach Steve Sarkisian, it was received with both thunderous applause and a sense of mystery.

Why would Drevno leave the highly successful San Francisco 49ers and long-time mentor Jim Harbaugh and return to the college game? After all, the NFL offers a great salary, a tremendous retirement plan for assistant coaches, and one doesn’t have to deal with the non-stop world of recruiting.

“The big draw for me was USC,” said Drevno, a Southern California native. “My grandfather went to USC -- a 1951 graduate of the pharmacy school -- my sister is a 1982 graduate in hospital administration, and I grew up a USC fan going to games.”

The dream of his youth was to be a USC tailback and receive all the acclaim that goes with one of college football’s most storied positions.

“I used to be on my mom’s bed and would jump over the bed acting like I was Marcus Allen,” said Drevno, a former all-league lineman at South Torrance (Calif.) High. “I wanted to be a tailback, but I grew up to be an offensive lineman.”

Although he played at Cal State Fullerton, where he received his degree in criminal justice in 1992, you get the impression that Drevno is living a second childhood after being named the Trojans offensive line coach.

[+] EnlargeTim Drevno
AP Photo/Scott BoehmTim Drevno comes to USC after helping the 49ers become the NFL's third-best rushing team a year ago.
USC fans are hoping that Drevno brings some of the Jim Harbaugh toughness that was a cornerstone of Stanford football, where the two coached together for four years before transitioning to the San Francisco 49ers in 2011.

“I love the man,” said the 44-year-old Drevno. “He taught me to run the ball first and be physical up front -- attack each day with enthusiasm unknown to mankind. You’re either getting better or you’re getting worse; you’re never staying the same. Be the best at whatever you do.”

Drevno’s 49ers résumé is impressive. In 2013, tackle Joe Staley and guard Mike Iupati made the Pro Bowl. In 2012, all five of the 49ers’ line starters were selected for the Pro Bowl, and Iupati was a first-team All-Pro selection. Not bad for a coach whose previous coaching stops also include Cal St. Fullerton, Montana State, UNLV, San Jose State, Idaho, and the University of San Diego.

So should Trojans fans soon expect the same type of powerful offensive lines that Drevno formed with the 49ers and Stanford?

“First, we’ll have to see what we’re working with and we’ll piece it together as we go,” Drevno said.

And what will it take for the Trojans to play Drevno’s physical brand of offensive line football?

“Covering somebody up, moving your feet and hands, and getting after it,” Drevno said. “It’s about both attitude and technique. This game is about blocking and tackling. Those are the qualities it takes to win, and the physicality comes later.

“All of football is a mindset when it comes to physical play. You have to work at it to be good at it. You just can’t do one thing and be one-dimensional. It’s a want to and a brotherhood in the room. You have to want to take ownership.”

Despite the Trojans limited numbers, Drevno takes a practical yet positive approach as his unit embarks on a new system.

“We’ve got a great group to work with and we have 10 healthy guys right now,” Drevno said. “We have other guys that will be healthy soon, and you just push forward. Guys are working hard and getting better every day. You coach them hard.”

It was feared during the recruiting period that Drevno’s late addition to the staff might affect USC’s chances of signing a great offensive line class. As the 49ers went through the playoffs, only to lose to eventual Super Bowl champions Seattle Seahawks, Trojans recruits such as highly coveted Bellflower (Calif.) St John Bosco All-America prep tackle Damien Mama took notice.

“The staff did a great job of holding on to them and keeping me up to date,” Drevno said. “We lost that game in Seattle and I flew down immediately to be in the home of Damien Mama. These are good football players coming in and we’re excited to be working with them.”

Even before spring ball, Drevno had been hard at work evaluating his offensive linemen. It was decided about a month ago that starting junior offensive guard Max Tuerk would get yet another crack at center with the early departure of Marcus Martin to the 2014 NFL draft.

“Max is a smart guy, and we’re trying to put the best five guys on the field,” Drevno said. “He’s a veteran guy and he’s played a lot of snaps. We started there; we’ll mix it up and see what’s best for everybody.”

And everybody also means true freshmen Toa Lobendahn, a potential center candidate who left La Habra (Calif.) High early to enroll in time for spring practice, as did Claremont (Calif.) High tackle Jordan Austin.

“Toa comes from a football family with his dad being a coach,” Drevno said. “Coach's kids do the right things, and they been around a lot chasing balls around, so he fits in pretty well.

“I am really impressed with Toa and Jordan Austin. They all have tremendous want to and they want to be good. These guys are a very good draft class in terms of prospects.”

When asked about re-adjusting from coaching in the NFL to coaching in college, Drevno remains philosophical.

“Football is football whether you’re coaching Pop Warner, high school, college, or the pros,” Drevno said. “You roll the ball out and you execute at a high level. The patience level is the same; it’s a journey.”

Drevno’s cardinal and gold journey is just beginning. Not bad for a former USC tailback wannabe.
The Trojans added five new 2014 recruits at the spring semester in defensive linemen Claudeson Pelon and Don Hill, quarterback Jalen Greene and offensive linemen Toa Lobendahn and Jordan Austin. What should fans expect out of these five newcomers this spring? Here are some thoughts on their expectations as practice begins later this week.

Pelon: He is the most likely of the early enrollees to make an immediate impact as he competes for the interior spot vacated by George Uko. Pelon has massive size with a 6-foot-5, 285-pound frame along with two years of playing experience at the junior college level. He will face a lot of competition from players like Antwaun Woods, Delvon Simmons, Kenny Bigelow and Greg Townsend Jr. (along with the possibility of J.R. Tavai) but Pelon will be given every opportunity in spring to show that he can be part of the interior rotation.

Hill: Don’t expect much from Hill this spring as he rehabs from an Achilles' heel injury suffered last year. Hill was committed to Steve Sarkisian and Washington before flipping to USC, so these coaches have long thought that Hill could fit in their plans. He’s projected as a DE who could play a stand-up OLB role.

Greene: There were a few raised eyebrows when Sarkisian offered a scholarship to Greene, who wasn’t previously on the USC radar as a commit to Boise State. Now with the recent announcement that Max Wittek would be leaving the program, Greene suddenly has the opportunity to get a lot of reps in his first spring with the Trojans. The main competition at the position will be between incumbent Cody Kessler and the talented Max Browne, but Greene will benefit from the added work that comes when only three scholarship quarterbacks are on the roster.

Lobendahn: While Pelon might be the mostly likely of the early entries to see immediate playing time, don’t rule Lobendahn out of that mix because the Trojans need a center and there are no clear-cut favorites for the role. Khaliel Rodgers enters spring as a candidate with one year of experience as a guard but Lobendahn figures to be given a shot to compete for the spot. Lobendahn is the son of a coach who was also a lineman so the genes and fundamentals are there. He has a versatile and aggressive playing style that reminds us of former USC lineman Lenny Vandermade, who is back with the program this spring as part of the staff.

Austin: There won’t be many immediate expectations for Austin this spring. He will be added in as depth with a chance to begin his development process a semester early, which is always a bonus for an incoming lineman.

Top position classes: OL 

February, 20, 2014
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With national signing day in the books, RecruitingNation is looking at the top position classes. For the full series, click here.

Nationally (and SEC)
Not only did Alabama put together the best offensive line class in the 2014 cycle, but it's also one of the best in recent memory. The Crimson Tide inked early enrollee and five-star offensive tackle Cameron Robinson (Monroe, La./West Monroe) and also got top-ranked junior college offensive tackle Dominick Jackson (San Mateo, Calif./College of San Mateo). On the interior, the nation's top two centers, No. 168 overall Josh Casher (Mobile, Ala./Saint Paul’s Episcopal) and No. 190 J.C. Hassenauer (Woodbury, Minn./East Ridge) signed, as did No. 3 guard Ross Pierschbacher (Cedar Falls, Iowa/Cedar Falls). A second guard in the class is three-star Montel McBride (Plant City, Fla./Plant City), who could also play nose tackle at the next level.

The Crimson Tide had the nation’s best offensive line class; here’s which schools had the best in each of the remaining power conferences:


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USC spring battle spotlight: Right tackle 

February, 18, 2014
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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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Closing out signing day at No. 14 in Recruiting Nation’s 2014 class rankings, new USC coach Steve Sarkisian and his staff did a remarkable job of not only grabbing the best players they could but of addressing their needs. Loading up on top-notch athletes such as John “Juju” Smith, Adoree’ Jackson and Rahshead Johnson, for example, the Trojans coaches solved depth issues at wide receiver and in the defensive backfield, while also adding some elite talent.

And while those big-play skill-position prospects garnered much of the attention, USC just might have made its biggest splash along the offensive line.

Sarkisian & Co. reeled in arguably the most highly acclaimed collection of offensive linemen in one recruiting cycle at USC since Pete Carroll’s 2008 class that included Khaled Holmes, Matt Kalil and Tyron Smith – all of whom currently play in the NFL.

Included in this year’s bumper crop are Jordan Austin (Claremont, Calif./Claremont), as well as ESPN 300 members Chris Brown (Los Angeles/Loyola), Toa Lobendahn (La Habra, Calif./La Habra), Damien Mama (Bellflower, Calif./St. John Bosco) and Viane Talamaivao (Corona, Calif./Centennial).

“To sign five offensive linemen, some of whom will have opportunities to contribute early on, I think is big,” Sarkisian said at his signing day news conference. “It’s a great group, and a group that was much needed.”

Chris Brown
Blair Angulo/ESPNESPN 300 offensive lineman Chris Brown is a part of an impressive group of USC offensive line signees.
“Much needed” is right. The Trojans not only lost the leader of last season’s offensive line in center Marcus Martin, but also three-year starting right tackle Kevin Graf, as well as important contributorsJohn Martinez and Abe Markowitz. As such, it stands to reason that the newcomers are going to receive every opportunity imaginable to make an instant impact as recently hired offensive line coach Tim Drevno looks to return this group’s level of play to the days of yore.

After all, that smashmouth, take-no-prisoners mindset and standard of production that existed during USC’s magical runs under John McKay, John Robinson and Pete Carroll is something that was noticeably lacking during the past four seasons under Lane Kiffin, at least on a consistent basis.

But there’s reason to believe that with this class -- on top of Sarkisian’s commitment to maintaining an aggressive ground game as an integral part of his fast-paced offense and the hiring of a position coach in Drevno, who has had experience coaching physical offensive lines at Stanford and with the San Francisco 49ers -- that the foundation is there for a successful future.

Each member of the new haul brings something unique. Austin, a mid-year enrollee, is a fantastic 6-foot-5, 275-pound athlete with the frame to pile on more weight, making him a promising tackle prospect for down the road. Brown is an attacking blocker with outstanding technique who can play guard or tackle. Mama is a 370-pound mauler who projects at guard. Talamaivao, who can play guard (and, according to Sarkisian, possibly center) is another player who is noted for his physicality, as well as a nasty streak when he hits the field. And then there’s Lobendahn. Another early entrant, he’s capable of lining up at center, guard or tackle, making him the most versatile of the bunch.

Of the five, Mama, Talamaivao and Lobendahn – who will participate in spring practice – appear most poised to make their presence felt immediately, either as potential starters or key backups.

Significant veterans such as guard/tackle Max Tuerk, tackle Chad Wheeler and guard Aundrey Walker are returning, on top of a slew of reserves such as Jordan Simmons, Zach Banner, Khaliel Rodgers and Nico Falah. So it certainly looks like the Trojans have a deep and talented offensive line unit to pave the way up front next season.

Still, questions abound when discussing this group. Sarkisian has said that every member on the team currently out with an injury will return in time for fall camp, including Walker (ankle), Simmons (knee) and Banner (hip). If any of those players miss the spring and a portion of the summer workouts, however, what kind of shape will they be in when the season rolls around? Will Walker be ready to step into a starting role at right guard again? Can Simmons, who showed tremendous ability in practice, pick up where he left off?

What about the now-vacant center and right tackle positions? Who nails down those spots? And who will step in to assume a leadership role?

The good news is that it’s only February, giving the USC coaches plenty of time to figure out the answers to all of those questions and more.

One thing, though, is already certain. With Austin, Brown, Lobendahn, Mama and Talamaivao now a part of the future equation, the offensive line is in a much better place today, both in regard to the 2014 season and in the long term, than it was just a couple of weeks ago.
The Trojans currently have 15 commitments for 19 spots available in the Class of 2014 and early spring enrollments.

Here is how the spots fill out for the commitments that have been made so far:

QB (1) Jalen Greene
RB (0)
WR (1) Rahshead Johnson
TE (1) Bryce Dixon
OL (4) Viane Talamaivao, Toa Lobendahn, Chris Brown, Jordan Austin
DL (3) Malik Dorton, Don Hill, Claudeson Pelon
LB (2) Olajuwon Tucker, Uchenna Nwosu
DB (3) Jonathan Lockett, Ajene Harris, John Plattenburg

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LOS ANGELES -- Steve Sarkisian hasn’t been back at USC long -- just over six weeks to be exact -- but as he spoke to a gathering of reporters inside the John McKay Center on Tuesday afternoon, it became apparent that the new head coach certainly isn’t tempering his optimism.

“We’ve got a plenty talented roster to go out and compete for a championship,” Sarkisian said, “and that’s what I said [on] Day 1, and I really have not wavered on that.”


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USC builds momentum during dead period 

January, 16, 2014
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The month-long dead period was part fruitful and part complicated for USC recruiting, offering a prelude to what could be a wild finish for new head coach Steve Sarkisian and his staff.

Four verbal commitments highlighted the period -- which ran from Dec. 16 to Jan. 15 -- but some members of the Trojans’ class were met with uncertainty as the coaches scrambled to find additional targets. A commitment from dual-threat quarterback Jalen Greene (Gardena, Calif./Serra) was the first domino to fall, as Sarkisian nabbed his top target at a position of need, and plenty of activity followed despite the prohibition of face-to-face contact.


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Breaking down USC's '14 class by position 

December, 19, 2013
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A recent string of commitments heading into the dead period has left USC with only five remaining slots in its 2014 recruiting class. The Trojans have 19 total spots to use, as long as four of them are mid-year enrollees.

Here's a position-by-position look at how USC could allocate those empty spots, with a projection of how many players at each position the Trojans will try to sign:

Offensive line: 6

The Trojans hold five commitments on the offensive line, two of those from mid-year enrollees who already have signed financial aid agreements. They might not be done, though, as a big fish is still out there and possibly leaning toward signing with his childhood favorite. If the coaching staff decides a scholarship would be more important at another position, the Trojans might have to part ways with a prospect from this bunch.


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USC continues its recruiting momentum 

December, 16, 2013
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Monday might be the start of a recruiting dead period, but the USC Trojans have shown plenty of life on the recruiting trail of late. Head coach Steve Sarkisian has reeled in three commitments and this past weekend provided more recruiting news surrounding the Trojans.


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USC lands four-star DE following visit 

December, 15, 2013
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Consider USC’s first on-campus recruiting weekend since the arrival of new head coach Steve Sarkisian a success.

Heading into the weekend, a major priority for Sarkisian and his staff was to secure a fourth mid-year enrollee in the current class. The Trojans checked that off their to-do list Sunday when four-star defensive end Don Hill (Boise, Ida./Timberline) committed and signed a financial aid agreement. Early enrollees Toa Lobendahn (La Habra, Calif./La Habra) and Jordan Austin (Claremont, Calif./Claremont) also signed their paperwork Saturday during their official visits, and Chris Brown (Los Angeles/Loyola) gave indications that he will soon join the class too.


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Early spot creates recruiting urgency 

December, 13, 2013
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Upon arriving in Los Angeles last week, USC head coach Steve Sarkisian and his assistants were faced with the difficult task of filling four mid-year enrollment slots. The commitment of ESPN JC 50 defensive tackle Claudeson Pelon (Orlando, Fla./Mesa Community College) earlier this week alleviated some concerns, but the Trojans head into their first big on-campus recruiting weekend in search of at least one more worthy prospect who is eligible for early enrollment.

If that carryover spot from the 2013 class were to go unused, USC would not be able to regain it. Two early enrollees and two uncommitted targets make up the list of expected visitors this weekend. A look at who will be on the USC campus:

No. 8 OG Toa Lobendahn (La Habra, Calif./La Habra) - Lobendahn listened to other schools when the firing of Lane Kiffin created some uncertainty, but his spot in USC’s recruiting class never was truly in doubt. The 6-foot-3, 295-pound lineman toyed with the idea of visiting other schools, but the turnaround under former interim head coach Ed Orgeron was enough to convince him to stay close to home. There were even some concerns that UCLA's hire of Kennedy Polamalu, a former Trojans assistant and respected coach in the Polynesian community, would give Lobendahn something to think about. But Lobendahn’s commitment to USC and early enrollment status was never in jeopardy, even with the coach who began recruiting him three years ago now at the rival program. Lobendahn was the first prospect to receive an in-home visit after Sarkisian arrived from Washington, and the official visit this weekend could essentially be viewed as a victory lap.

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