USC Trojans: Khaliel Rodgers

The USC Trojans came out in helmets and shorts on Friday and took part in a practice session that head coach Steve Sarkisian said mirrored what the team's Thursday workouts will look like during the season.

An extremely light practice that was around an hour-and-a-half long, Sarkisian said that with the opener coming up in just over a week, the primary focus was on working out the kinks and making sure everyone was on the same page.

LOS ANGELES -- Almost everyone agrees that a reconstructed and heavily scrutinized offensive line will be key to the USC Trojans' success this season.

The responsibility for this unit rests with new offensive line coach Tim Drevno. The first-year coach has been working with his players individually after practice during this first week of training camp.

"I think the biggest thing is to get back into the playbook and get our physicality back, get great communication up front, start to address the starting five, and try to find the sixth, seventh, and eighth guy," said Drevno, who was the assistant offensive line coach last season with the San Francisco 49ers.

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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 head coach Steve Sarkisian took his turn on the phone on Thursday during the Pac-12 football coaches teleconference, revealing that among his biggest concerns for the Trojans heading into the fall is finding the right combination along the offensive line.

“Solidifying that front five -- who’s going to be where, that depth and all of that -- I think, is one key component for us,” Sarkisian said.

That doesn’t exactly come as a surprise. After all, this past spring the Trojans were without a 2013 starter in senior guard Aundrey Walker (ankle), as well as promising guard/tackle Jordan Simmons (knee) and tackle Nico Falah (back), all to injuries, making the lack of depth a glaring issue.

The Trojans featured a No. 1 offensive line unit throughout the majority of the March and April workouts that was comprised of Chad Wheeler at left tackle, Toa Lobendahn at left guard, Max Tuerk at center, Khaliel Rodgers at right guard and Zach Banner at right tackle.

[+] EnlargeMax Tuerk
Kelley L Cox/USA TODAY SportsMax Tuerk played center all spring and is almost certain to start somewhere on the line this fall.
But with Walker, Simmons and Falah all expected to return in time for fall camp, on top of the fact that the unit will add a trio of highly touted freshmen to the mix in Chris Brown, Damien Mama and Viane Talamaivao, the starting group could potentially have a very different look when the Trojans open up against Fresno State on Aug. 30.

Sarkisian noted that Mama and Talamaivao will both begin their USC careers on the interior. He did not discuss Brown, but most consider him to have the ability to line up at guard or tackle.

How the players who are coming off injury, as well those freshman additions, adjust to the new uptempo system and how they perform in fall camp will play a major part in what kind of role they’re ultimately going to play.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Sarkisian said. “So, that’s why the challenge is so big for us of how we’re handling that first week to get guys opportunities to show what they’re about, so we can start developing some cohesiveness amongst that offensive front as we move toward the season.”

Sarkisian spoke glowingly of Wheeler and also praised Tuerk, Lobendahn and Banner for their efforts this past spring. He also noted that Tuerk will continue to line up at center, where he played during the entirety of the spring, but he appeared to leave the door open for others to still compete at the position.

“I do know that Max Tuerk is a tremendous football player,” Sarkisian said. “He’s played a lot of football. He’s going to play for us this fall. He went through the entire spring as our center. We’ll obviously take a good, hard look at that early in training camp, along with a couple other guys.“

Response to SEC decision

One topic that was brought up throughout the call to all of the Pac-12 coaches was the Southeastern Conference’s recent decision to stick to an eight-game conference schedule.

With college football moving to a four-team playoff next season, the trend has been for conferences to adopt a nine-game conference schedule. Pac-12 and Big 12 teams already play nine conference games, and the Big Ten is scheduled to make the change in 2016.

When asked about the SEC’s decision, Sarkisian took the opportunity to praise the Pac-12 while also expressing his desire for a level playing field down the line.

“The Pac-12 has been on the forefront of the scheduling thing here for quite some time,” Sarkisian said. “I think it’s encouraging to see that the majority of college football is moving their way towards nine. I think for college football to find the common ground, the more areas we can all be the same so that there’s a competitive and level playing field for everybody, I think should be the goal.”

Hawkins impresses

When asked if there were any redshirt freshmen who stood out to him this spring at USC, Sarkisian answered with cornerback Chris Hawkins.

“From all of the accounts of all of the people that were here on the previous staff, he has really matured mentally and physically,” Sarkisian said. “I thought his body has really changed. I thought he had a very good spring for us.”

Ten spring risers at USC

April, 25, 2014
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With a new coaching staff in place at USC, spring practice represented a time of opportunity more than ever for lesser-known members of the team looking to make a move up the depth chart. With that said, here are 10 players who seized that chance over the course of the 15 workouts, showing that they just might be ready to make a significant impact for the Trojans in the fall.

[+] EnlargeJabari Ruffin
Kelvin Kuo/USA TODAY SportsJabari Ruffin (40) was a force all spring, moving ahead of Quinton Powell at SAM linebacker.
1. TE Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick (6-foot-4, 255 pounds, Jr.)
With Randall Telfer sidelined for this spring because of injury, Cope-Fitzpatrick got the call with the first unit and shined in Steve Sarkisian’s tight end-friendly offense. Showcasing sure hands to go along with the ideal size that you want at the position, he caught virtually everything thrown in his direction, providing more than enough evidence to suggest that he’s primed for a breakout season.

2. OLB Scott Starr (6-2, 220, RS So.)
After battling a neck injury and being buried on the depth chart during his first two years on campus, a now-healthy Starr materialized as a perfect fit at rush end in Justin Wilcox’s new 3-4 multiple front defense. With a nonstop motor and outstanding pass-rush skills, he capped his stellar spring in the Coliseum by making a game-high six stops, including three tackles for loss and one sack.

3. OL Zach Banner (6-9, 345, RS So.)
Missing the majority of the 2013 season after undergoing surgery on both hips, Banner’s emergence was one of the big surprises. Moving into the starting lineup at right tackle during the third week of workouts, Banner played the best that he has in a Trojans uniform -- a particularly impressive feat when you consider the fact he said he wasn’t even quite back to 100 percent yet. With the promise that he showed, it certainly wouldn’t be a shock to see him remain with the first group in the fall.

4. OLB Jabari Ruffin (6-3, 225, RS So.)
Like Starr, Ruffin benefited from the switch to the new defensive system in a big way. Rangy, fast and extremely aggressive at the point of attack, he’s tailor-made for the SAM linebacker position in Wilcox’s scheme. Beginning camp with the No. 2 unit, he eventually moved ahead of Quinton Powell -- another rising player -- and ran exclusively with the first-team defense during the last two weeks of spring drills.

5. CB Chris Hawkins (5-11, 185, RS Fr.)
After spending his first season at USC redshirting, a more physically developed Hawkins came into camp showcasing an improved skill set, jumping in with the No. 1 defensive group opposite Kevon Seymour. His development is crucial for a unit that struggled in coverage at times in 2013, and even with the expected return of Josh Shaw from injury in the fall, USC will need all of the capable contributors it can come up with as the unit squares off against all of those uptempo, spread-it-out Pac-12 offenses.

6. OLB Quinton Powell (6-2, 220, So.)
The fact Powell was supplanted in the starting lineup during the later stages of spring ball really speaks more about the exceptional camp that Ruffin had than anything that Powell did wrong. On the contrary, the long and athletic former Daytona Beach (Fla.) Mainland star continued to stand out as one of the team’s most promising young talents. A force both in coverage and up at the line of scrimmage, the competition between Powell and Ruffin is sure to be one of the most entertaining position battles of fall camp.

7. DL Delvon Simmons (6-6, 300, RS Jr.)
Forced to spend last fall on the scout team as he sat out the season after transferring from Texas Tech, where he compiled 13 starts in 2012, Simmons hit the ground running this spring from Day 1. Surprisingly mobile for a player possessing his size, expect him to make an instant impact up front for the Trojans as a member of what should be an extremely formidable defensive line group.

8. DL Claude Pelon (6-5, 285, RS Jr.)
Transferring to USC from Mesa (Ariz.) Community College in January, Pelon struggled at times early in camp as he adjusted to the lightning-fast tempo of practice, but once he got into shape he really asserted himself as someone to keep an eye on. In fact, perhaps no player improved more during the 15 practices than he did. A powerfully built athlete, he amassed three tackles for loss, including two sacks, in the spring game, and he’s only going to get better.

9. OL Khaliel Rodgers (6-3, 310, RS Fr.)
Taking advantage of Aundrey Walker’s absence because of injury, Rodgers stepped in at right guard with the starting unit and remained there throughout spring ball. Strong and stout with a nasty demeanor when he’s on the field, he performed well enough to show that if Walker doesn’t return to form after having been away so long, Rodgers is a steady option who can certainly get the job done.

10. OL Toa Lobendahn (6-3, 290, Fr.)
An early enrollee, Lobendahn neither looked nor played like a player just a few months removed from high school. Lining up as the No. 2 center initially, he moved over to left guard, where he ran with the No. 1 unit throughout the last four weeks of drills. A versatile lineman with strong fundamentals, what was most impressive was the way he was able to hold his own physically against the more veteran players. Things will get a whole lot more interesting in the fall when USC adds injured guards Walker and Jordan Simmons back into the equation, as well as a host of freshmen, but Lobendahn got a jump on the competition by making a big statement with his play this spring.

The best of spring football at USC 

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Here’s our look back at the Trojans’ progress during spring.

MVP

[+] EnlargeNelson Agholor
Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY SportsWill Nelson Agholor become the latest standout receiver at USC?
Garry Paskwietz: Nelson Agholor
Johnny Curren: Agholor
Greg Katz: Agholor, Hayes Pullard

Curren: From the start of spring ball to last Saturday’s finish no other player performed at such a sky-high level, and with such consistency, as Agholor. A practice didn’t ever seem to go by without the talented junior coming up with at least one highlight catch that caught everyone’s attention. An already solid player heading into the spring, he got even better and appears poised to take his place as the next great USC wide receiver.

Biggest surprise

GP: Zach Banner
JC: Scott Starr
GK: Banner

Katz: It has to be redshirt freshman offensive right tackle Zach Banner, who came out of nowhere -- thanks to the wonders of hip surgery -- to claim the starting position. He probably surprised not only his teammates with his newfound agility but himself as well. Still a work in progress, he is not only turning into a grizzly bear on roller skates but potentially a future All-Pac-12 selection. When Banner is able to stay at pad level, it’s like a tsunami of human girth stream rolling a mismatched opponent.


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As the Trojans prepare to wind down spring ball drills, there won’t be a clear-cut answer on whom will be starting at right guard in the fall.

Khaliel Rodgers has been working with the first unit throughout spring and has done a solid job. The redshirt freshman is known for his tenacious and aggressive nature, and he has made progress adjusting to USC's new up-tempo offense.

[+] EnlargeKhaliel Rodgers
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillRedshirt freshman Khaliel Rodgers, a former ESPN 300 recruit, could start in 2014 for the Trojans.
By the time fall camp rolls around, however, there will be competition in the form of experienced senior Aundrey Walker. With 18 career starts under his belt -- including 10 last season at right guard -- Walker has to be considered a legitimate option, but he will also be coming off a broken ankle suffered in the regular season finale. That injury has forced him to sit out spring ball, which includes an important adjustment period to the speedy pace of play.

Walker has never been known as a player with a great work ethic so it will be interesting to see where his strength and conditioning is when he returns to practice. The fact that his injury is an ankle has prevented him from keeping up with conditioning, and there will be no real way to substitute for that until the ankle is ready. Walker is a big guy, listed on the USC roster at 6-foot-6 and 300 pounds, and that kind of frame will need some time to catch up to the work the other players are doing right now in order to get through 120 high-paced plays per day.

Of course, this is the final year of college eligibility for Walker, the last chance to impress the pro scouts for his potential career. Perhaps that will be the kind of carrot that will motivate him to show up ready to go from the moment fall camp arrives.

If Walker isn’t ready to go -- either with conditioning or with mental knowledge of the playbook -- Rodgers is continuing to make the coaches more and more comfortable with the thought of putting him on the field. That previous starting experience will be important for Walker, though, and you know the coaches will factor that into the equation, too.

WeAreSC caught up with Rodgers to get his thoughts as spring ball enters the final week:

Q: How is spring practice going so far?

A: It’s going great. Everyone is adjusting and doing great so far.

Q: What’s your weight at right now?

A: About 300 pounds.

Q: Is that the weight you’ve been trying to maintain through the spring?

A: Yeah, it’s been up and down a lot, been in the [200s], back up to [300], 310 but I’m 300 even right now.

Q: What’s it been like with [offensive line] Coach [Tim] Drevno?

A: It has been an awesome experience. He’s one of the greatest coaches to come out of the NFL. From the technique he teaches and overall, he’s a team coach and a great coach overall.

Q: How has moving around at guard been?

A: I’ve always been a guard, so moving me from left to right hasn’t been a major difference.

Q: You’ve been playing a lot with the first team, you feel pretty comfortable with that?

A: Yeah, me and the guys are gelling well. I took a lot of reps with them, with the first team, last year at practice. We were able to gel back then, so we are definitely gelling now.

Q: There was a lot of talk of you coming in and playing center, was that something you kind of wanted to do, or do you like it at guard better?

A: Whatever position Coach [Steve Sarkisian] wants me to be at, I’ll play.

Q: How much more prepared do you think you are with the redshirt year under your belt?

A: I’m more prepared just knowing the game, sitting back for a whole year and just watching how the game’s being played. Just football knowledge, I gained a lot of football knowledge.

Q: What’s the scheme been like for you? How different has it been with Sark in there?

A: It is totally different, but it is a scheme that will win games for sure, so we are definitely adjusting.

Q: For you specifically, what has been the difference for you? The protections, the calls, is all that different?

A: Wider splits, up tempo, fast, you’ve got to think faster. Everything is fast, that’s how you’ve got to win games now. Football is evolving and we got to be fast.

Q: Do you like the up-tempo style?

A: Definitely. It kills the morale of the defense.

Q: Is there any issues with conditioning for you as far as the up tempo goes?

A: We all have to get used to it as a team, but we are almost to the end of spring, so we are starting to get used to it now.

Q: You guys are running about 120 plays during practice, do you feel pretty good afterwards or are the last few plays hard?

A: It is definitely a lot of work put in so it’s not a bad feeling, but just to know that you can say you ran 120 plays, that’s a great accomplishment in practice.

Q: What do you think the quarterbacks have looked like back there?

A: All of my QBs are great. They’ve done an excellent job this whole spring.

Q: Max Browne came in with you in your class, what do you think of him so far?

A: Max, he works hard, he’s a work horse, in the film room especially. He’s always in the film room and the weight room, he always puts the extra time in. He’s a great guy.

Q: And you came in with Kenny Bigelow too, you get to face off against him. From the same high school, do you guys talk a lot about that?

A: Nah, high school is done with, it’s just like same ol' same ol', we go against each other all the time.

Roundtable: USC offensive line progress

March, 27, 2014
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WeAreSC staffers give their thoughts on the progress of the USC offensive line in spring ball.

Garry Paskwietz: I think there are several observations that can be made about the line right now. First off, the coaches seem to be pleased with the move of Max Tuerk to center. There were fumbling issues last season when Tuerk had an audition at center, but those were usually with the quarterback under center. There have not been any issues this spring with the quarterback in the shotgun in new coach Steve Sarkisian’s offense. This is no small item with the importance of the center position on the line and Tuerk offers a chance to put arguably your best lineman in that spot.

Toa Lobendahn
Blair Angulo/ESPNEarly enrollee Toa Lobendahn, who was ranked No. 116 in the 2014 ESPN 300, could see immediate playing time for the Trojans.
It’s also clear that Toa Lobendahn has made an early impression as Sarkisian has praised his preparation and maturity. Lobendahn was the backup to Tuerk at center originally but he has seen time at left guard in recent days and could get a longer look there as spring goes along. Chad Wheeler seems set at left tackle, which is no surprise, and guys such as Zach Banner, Khaliel Rodgers, Giovanni Di Poalo and Nathan Guertler have all shown pretty well so far. Banner is raving about his increased flexibility after surgery on both hips last year.

Johnny Curren: While the lack of depth is a concern, overall the offensive line has exceeded my expectations this spring. Tim Drevno has his unit playing physically and as a cohesive unit.

Although it came as a bit of a surprise, the move of Tuerk to center appears to have stabilized the unit. The most experienced, and arguably most talented returner, he’s established himself as the anchor of the group.

Wheeler has been steady at left tackle, and Rodgers has really asserted himself as a legitimate candidate to assume a starting role at right guard. Nathan Guertler has had a productive spring as well as the primary starter at right tackle. Overlooked heading into the March and April workouts, I think he has really made a statement with his play that he can be a factor in the competition for the No. 1 job there. Speaking of which, Banner ran with the second unit behind Guertler on Tuesday, and as he gets more and more reps after missing the majority of last season, I think he’s going to make this a heated position battle to keep your eye on.

I really liked the move of Lobendahn into the starting lineup at left guard on Tuesday. He’s a unique talent at guard and center, and if his performance and growth this spring is any sign of things to come, he has a very bright future. It’s nice to see his primary competition at guard, Di Paolo, having arguably the best spring of his career.

With all that said, with what this group has shown so far this spring with less-than-ideal numbers, I think that this unit has the potential to develop into something very special down the line when injured contributors such as Jordan Simmons, Nico Falah and Aundrey Walker return, as well as when talented incoming freshmen Viane Talamaivao, Damien Mama and Chris Brown jump into the mix.

Greg Katz: Until the return of Walker and Simmons and the eventual summer arrival of those heralded incoming freshmen, we really won’t know how the offensive line will eventually line up against Fresno State in the season opener.

However, at this point in the spring, it appears that Tuerk will be the starter at center, and he has been endorsed by none other than his roommate and incumbent quarterback Cody Kessler. The key right now is finding the right backup for Tuerk.

Keep an eye on all-purpose senior Di Poalo, who is being given a final opportunity to show he can be in the rotation as a center or guard, if called upon. This could be a real heartwarming senior story if it works out for him.

Next are the two guard positions. Given the lack of current depth, it is no surprise that Rodgers has been given the first shot, and it appears that the Delaware native hasn’t disappointed in his nasty style of play. Obviously all eyes are on Lobendahn, who has been singled out by Sarkisian.

Finally, there are the tackle positions, two big keys and question marks. Neither current starters Wheeler nor Guertler have yet been identified as all-star candidates. Their desire and will, however, are there, but can they dominate, as has come to be expected from USC offensive tackles? They both appear to be finesse tackles, but perhaps the bigger question is who steps up to back up either one? The most intriguing spring offensive story might be sophomore tackle Banner, who is showing renewed promise after having hip surgery to improve his agility.
After a break in action, USC returns to Brian Kennedy-Howard Jones Field on Tuesday to pick up where it left off after a promising first week of spring drills under Steve Sarkisian.

Much was revealed during those initial three workouts, and here are three key things to keep an eye on as the Trojans go through the remaining practice schedule in March and April.

[+] EnlargeCody Kessler
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsCody Kessler has adjusted well to USC's uptempo offense this spring.
The continued development of the players in the new systems

Week 1 was all about an uptempo pace as the players got their feet wet in new offensive and defensive schemes at a frenetic pace. To their credit, they appeared to adapt to it all in lightning-quick fashion.

And so, the big question now is just how much further can they come over the course of the next four weeks?

On offense, the progression of the passing game should be particularly interesting to watch. Both Cody Kessler and Max Browne performed solidly in Sarkisian’s hurry-up, shotgun-based offense. As they continue to grow at ease in the new system and develop more chemistry with their receivers, there’s reason to believe the aerial attack has the potential to really take off.

On the other side of the ball, Justin Wilcox’s 3-4 multiple-front defense has been a hit so far, due in large part to some outstanding play in the trenches. The front seven shined throughout the first week, even with Leonard Williams standing on the sideline due to injury. With unique size on the interior and hulking contributors like Delvon Simmons, Antwaun Woods, Kenny Bigelow and Claude Pelon combined with exciting athletes on the outside, this unit should get better and better this spring.

In the secondary, even with Josh Shaw out of action, Keith Heyward’s group has been making some impressive plays in coverage -- something they struggled to do under the prior regime. Will that trend continue? We’ll soon find out.

Competition, competition, competition

When Sarkisian took the reins in early December, one thing he stressed was that virtually every position would be up for grabs. He wanted to create an atmosphere of competition. And with one week of practice in the books, it’s safe to say that is precisely what's happened.

A number of tightly contested position battles have taken shape, none garnering more attention than the one at quarterback between Browne, Kessler and early-entrant freshman Jalen Greene. With some added bulk to his frame and an increased level of confidence, Browne really opened eyes with his play in Week 1, but that doesn’t mean Kessler backed down an inch. A vocal leader of the team, Kessler did a great job of directing the offense down the field with frequent success. He had the poise and command you’d expect from a veteran with 14 starts under his belt. Greene has displayed flashes at times, although he’s taken noticeably fewer snaps than his counterparts, both of whom appear to have a sizeable lead on him in this race.

On defense, the competitions for the two spots on the edge of the line have been the highlight so far. Quinton Powell and Jabari Ruffin are duking it out at SAM linebacker, with Scott Starr and J.R. Tavai battling at rush end. In Week 1, it was Powell and Starr running exclusively with the No. 1 unit, but, really, all four contenders have stood out at times.

Some previously hidden players have also begun to emerge as they’ve received somewhat of a golden opportunity to show what they can do in the new schemes. Powell and Starr are two such examples, as are tight end Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick, guard Khaliel Rodgers, tackle Nathan Guertler, cornerback Chris Hawkins and defensive end Simmons.

How physical will Sarkisian allow it to get?

With a new staff in place and a depleted roster (NCAA sanctions) made even more so because of a number of injuries, Sarkisian indicated when he took over at USC that he might not push the envelope too much when it came to live hitting this spring. That was certainly the case in the first week. But as the team progresses through the schedule this month and next, will we see the pads popping with greater frequency at any point?

There are certainly some added benefits that could come with more physical workouts, but there are drawbacks as well. Finding the perfect combination isn’t as easy as it might sound. Just ask Lane Kiffin.

Stay away from full-contact drills completely and you risk fielding a defense that could get pushed around and has tackling issues. That was the case in 2012.

But USC still lacks depth, and if you allow more hitting, you also run the risk of more players getting injured. That happened in 2013.

It’s a decision that could ultimately play a major role in shaping the identity of the team down the line, so it will be interesting to see which way Sarkisian goes here.
With spring practice set to start back up again for USC next week, here’s a look at 10 players who entered the March and April workouts as somewhat hidden commodities but who showed in the first week of spring practice that they just might have the potential to take on a larger role for the Trojans in 2014.

TE Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick (6-foot-4, 255 pounds, junior): With Xavier Grimble off to the NFL draft and Randall Telfer currently sidelined by injury, Cope-Fitzpatrick is the lone active scholarship tight end available for the Trojans this spring, and he’s made the most of what has been a golden opportunity to demonstrate what he’s capable of doing in USC head coach Steve Sarkisian’s new up-tempo, tight end-friendly offense. Cope-Fitzpatrick displayed sure hands and a high level of athleticism in the first week, catching virtually everything thrown in his direction.

OLB Quinton Powell (6-2, 220, sophomore): Powell was one of the more exciting practice players to watch last fall as a reserve Will linebacker, and now that he’s made the move back outside -- where he played in high school -- to Sam linebacker, he looks to have found the perfect spot to showcase his talents. Long, athletic and extremely active, he was equally as strong coming off the edge as he was in pass coverage while running with the No. 1 defensive group.

[+] EnlargeNathan Guertler
AP Photo / Chris BernacchiFormer walk-on Nathan Guertler earned a scholarship and is in the mix on the offensive line.
Rush end/OLB Scott Starr (6-2, 220, redshirt sophomore): Hampered by injuries early in his career, Starr is now healthy and it’s made a world of difference. Lining up with the starting group at rush end in Justin Wilcox’s 3-4 multiple-front defense, he’s obviously already gained a level of confidence from the new coaching staff with his ability as a pass rusher and as a disruptive force, in general, near the line of scrimmage.

CB Chris Hawkins (5-11, 185, redshirt freshman): There’s little denial the Trojans need to shore up the cornerback spots heading into the 2014 season, and with Josh Shaw sidelined by a stress fracture in his foot, Hawkins got plenty of work during the first three workouts of spring. He was solid, for the most part. After redshirting as a freshman last fall, he looks to be playing with a greater level of confidence than he did just a few months ago. His interception of a Cody Kessler pass on the first day of practice was one of the highlights of the week.

DL Delvon Simmons (6-6, 300, redshirt junior): Forced to sit out the 2013 season after transferring to USC from Texas Tech, Simmons has stepped into the starting lineup this spring at defensive end and looks primed to make an instant impact as part of what should be an outstanding defensive line. Possessing a huge frame to go along with a strong motor, he already has the veteran experience that comes with having started 13 games for the Red Raiders in 2012.

OL Nathan Guertler (6-5, 280, redshirt senior): Originally arriving at USC as a walk-on in 2010, Guertler was recently awarded a scholarship by the new coaching staff, and it’s safe to say it’s an honor he more than deserves. A tireless worker who made the switch to tight end last season when the team had low numbers at the position, he’s now getting an extensive look with the first team at right tackle. And while it certainly isn’t a foregone conclusion that he’ll remain there in the fall, he’s shown enough to ensure that he’s worthy of being in the discussion.

OL Khaliel Rodgers (6-3, 310, redshirt freshman): Figured by many to be a prime contender for the open center spot going into the spring, Rodgers instead ran with the 1s at right guard and looked to be at home. As an aggressive blocker who possesses a mean streak on the field, he would appear to be a perfect fit as part of an offensive line unit that, under Tim Drevno, has placed an emphasis on being physical. Figuring to face plenty of additional competition in the fall in the form of freshmen Chris Brown, Damien Mama and Viane Talamaivao, the experience Rodgers is gaining now could give him a leg up heading into fall camp.

DL Kenny Bigelow (6-3, 300, redshirt freshman): Fairly raw when he first arrived on campus a little more than a year ago, Bigelow looks to have made strides in terms of where he is physically, as well as mentally, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him factor heavily into the defensive line rotation in 2014. With players such as Leonard Williams and Greg Townsend Jr. sidelined, Bigelow worked with the first team at one of the interior defensive end spots for a majority of the first week of practice.

S Gerald Bowman (5-11, 195, redshirt senior): Back from a shoulder injury that forced him to miss most of the 2013 season, Bowman has re-emerged this spring as one of only three available scholarship safeties. With the ability to play both safety spots, he served an important role throughout the first three practices as a backup and a key contributor in nickel situations.

OL Giovanni Di Poalo (6-4, 275, redshirt senior): For Di Poalo, 2014 marks his last shot to make a real impact for the Trojans, and to his credit it looks like he’s doing everything he can to try to make that happen. Taking advantage of the fresh start he’s gained with a new staff in place, in addition to the fact that USC simply doesn’t have a lot of healthy bodies ready to go along the offensive line right now, he took reps exclusively with the No. 1 unit at left guard last week. Things will get a whole lot more interesting in fall camp when those highly touted freshmen arrive, but Di Poalo appears to be making a statement that he won’t back down easily.
When the Trojans hit the field on Tuesday to take part in the first spring practice session of the Steve Sarkisian era, competition will be the name of the game, as several players will vie for a host of spots that have been declared up for grabs by the new head coach.

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.

[+] EnlargeMax Tuerk
Kelley L Cox/USA TODAY SportsMax Tuerk is likely to start somewhere on the USC offensive line. He'd be perhaps the safest choice at center.
That twist turns the competition into essentially a three-man race, with Max Tuerk, Khaliel Rodgers and Toa Lobendahn standing out as the primary contenders.

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.

Roundtable: Biggest noise in spring?

February, 27, 2014
Feb 27
6:00
AM PT
WeAreSC staffers give opinions on topics related to Trojans football:

Give your offensive and defensive "spring revelations," guys who will make the biggest noise in spring.

Garry Paskwietz: These are good times for the USC tailback spot. Buck Allen was the 2013 team MVP, and Tre Madden and Justin Davis were the darlings of the early part of the season. By the end of the year, however, you couldn’t help but notice the progress that Ty Isaac had made as well. Isaac combines a chiseled, big frame with a natural running style, and it wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see him really make a statement this spring.

My defensive revelation is more of a position group than an individual player. The need to replace George Uko along the interior of the line is critical, and the Trojans have some pretty good options. Delvon Simmons is eligible after sitting out last season as a transfer from Texas Tech. You can’t substitute experience, and Simmons has a year as a starter in the Big 12 under his belt. Kenny Bigelow redshirted last year and is ready to start showing why he was such a highly rated recruit coming out of high school. Claude Pelon offers another big, veteran body as a junior college transfer and then there is always the possibility of Greg Townsend, if he can stay healthy.

[+] Enlarge Delvon Simmons
John Albright/Icon SMIDelvon Simmons brings a year of experience from Texas Tech to USC.
Johnny Curren: With Marqise Lee off to the NFL, I really think that wide receiver Darreus Rogers has the potential to explode this spring. Possessing a unique combination of size, soft hands and big-play ability, he gained valuable experience in 2013 as the Trojans’ No. 3 receiver, hauling in 22 passes. I expect him to slide into the starting spot opposite Nelson Agholor and to take on a key role, particularly with USC going to more of an uptempo offense. From what he showed last season in somewhat limited action, he’s more than ready for the increase in responsibility.

I also wouldn’t be surprised to see Khaliel Rodgers potentially make a splash at center. I was extremely impressed with what I saw from him in practice last season, as well as in high school, and I think, given the opportunity this spring, he’ll succeed.

On the other side of the ball, I think Simmons is the big name to watch. At a hulking 6-foot-6 and 300 pounds, he’s another performer who impressed out on Brian Kennedy-Howard Jones Field on a daily basis last fall. With the added benefit of having started 13 games as a sophomore in 2012 at Texas Tech, he has the ability to step in right away and contribute with no adjustment period. He’ll challenge for the starting defensive end spot opposite Leonard Williams, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he lines up there when the Trojans open up the 2014 season. Linebackers Quinton Powell and Scott Starr are two more outstanding athletes who could make some noise this spring.

Greg Katz: Given that it’s a position of not only great need but of great interest, a spring revelation from this prospective will be redshirt freshman Rodgers, who has the size (6-3, 310) to be a dominant center. Playing in postseason all-star game competition coming out of high school, Rodgers really established himself as a prospect. Extremely physical and nasty at the point of attack, Rodgers can play two positions: center and guard. Because of the need at center, Rodgers will get every opportunity to show his stuff there, and it will be a revelation just how much potential this kid has to be outstanding. That said, there is still the leadership role of center and that will be one factor to monitor in his bid to be the starter.

The early loss of Uko leaves a real void and opportunity for somebody to step in and take that defensive tackle spot. There are enough candidates, but the one that will be a revelation will be Simmons, the former U.S. Army All-American. That "6-6, 300" is not some number put into a media guide. He has the necessary game experience and also had quality results playing as a true freshman with the Red Raiders. Keep an eye on this up-and-comer.

Roundtable: USC spring storylines

February, 19, 2014
Feb 19
2:15
PM PT
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.

USC spring battle spotlight: Right tackle 

February, 18, 2014
Feb 18
11:00
AM PT
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 Pac-12 has 26 of the 98 early entrants in the NFL draft. That’s impressive. Some players are locks to get drafted. Others might have jumped the gun a bit and find themselves on practice squads or brushing up on their Canadian. We’ll see.

What we’re more concerned about here is who is going to replace them. Some answers are clearer than others. Some teams might have to alter their schemes just to account for a departed player.

Here’s a look at the possible replacement players in the Pac-12 South. We’ll look at the North later this morning.

Leaving: Ka'Deem Carey, RB, Arizona.

The replacement: Jared Baker should be in the mix, though an injury will keep him out of spring ball. He’s expected to return in time for fall camp. Pierre Cormier and Zach Green will also get looks. Speaking with folks at Arizona, the word right now is that it’s wide open. One player could emerge, or it could end up being a by-committee approach. Nothing is off the table at this point.

Leaving: Carl Bradford, LB, Arizona State

The replacement: There really isn’t anyone who has Bradford’s skill set in the program yet, so the position is wide open. Viliami Latu has potential. So does Chans Cox, who was hurt a lot last season. They are also excited about incoming freshman Ismael Murphy-Richardson. He might not be ready to jump in immediately, but he could be the Devil backer by 2015.

[+] EnlargeRichardson
Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY SportsColorado will have a hard time replacing the explosive plays that Paul Richardson provided.
Leaving: Paul Richardson, WR, Colorado

The replacement: It was probably going to be Jeff Thomas before he transferred. Now it’s probably going to be a rotation of D.D. Goodson, Devin Ross, or redshirt freshmen Bryce Bobo or Elijah Dunston. Nelson Spruce has been solid, but he’s not the breakaway threat Richardson was. This will be a key spring battle to watch.

Leaving: Xavier Su'a-Filo, OL, UCLA

The replacement: Simon Goines should be back after starting six games at left tackle before an injury forced him out. Scott Quessenberry stepped in and played five games at left guard, which is where he’ll likely be next season with Goines back at tackle.

Leaving: Dion Bailey, LB, USC

The replacement: Leon McQuay III saw some playing time and is very highly regarded by the coaching staff. His contributions last season were mostly on special teams, but he’ll take on a larger role with Bailey’s departure.

Leaving: Marqise Lee, WR, USC

The replacement: Remember George Farmer? He’s still around and could be in for a big season if healthy. Darreus Rogers and Steven Mitchell both are promising, but both have missed time with injury. You never truly replace a Biletnikoff winner, but playing opposite a surging Nelson Agholor could help boost the production of whoever gets in the regular rotation.

Leaving: George Uko, DT, USC

The replacement: Transfer Delvon Simmons is coming off a redshirt season, as is freshman Kenny Bigelow. Both should get some serious looks, as this will be one of the hot position battles this spring. Someone will ultimately win the job, but expect a rotation with both next season.

Leaving: Marcus Martin, C, USC

The replacement: Lots of ifs here. It could be Max Tuerk moving over from guard, but he’ll also be in the mix for right tackle to replace Kevin Graf. Khaliel Rodgers redshirted and is an option at guard or center. Giovanni Di Poalo could also get a look.

Leaving: Xavier Grimble, TE, USC

The replacement: Grimble and Randall Telfer were basically co-starters, so all this probably means is Telfer’s workload increases as he becomes the clear No. 1. Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick is the only other scholarship tight end on the roster.

Leaving: Jake Murphy, TE, Utah

The replacement: Westlee Tonga seems like the logical fit. He has been around for a few years and has some experience, but was injured most of last year. He’ll get another opportunity to be the lead tight end in the newest installment of Utah’s offense.

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