USC Trojans: Zach Banner

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.
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 

April, 23, 2014
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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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The issue had been there since Zach Banner stepped foot on the USC campus in 2012.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roundtable: USC offensive line progress

March, 27, 2014
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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.
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.

LOS ANGELES -- Through a crush of digital cameras and recorders, new USC head coach Steve Sarkisian was given the requisite initial questions following his first official practice as USC’s head coach.

“What’s it like being back?”

“How was the walk onto the practice field?”

“What’s it like coaching some of the guys you recruited at Washington?”

Yada, yada, yada.

It didn’t take long, however, for the queries to turn to the quarterbacks. Much like last season, anytime USC has a quarterback competition it’s going to be in the national spotlight. For now, save the cards -- score, report or otherwise -- because to speculate on the quarterbacks after one practice barely scratches the surface of superficial. Particularly since, as Sarkisian noted, “we were practicing in our underwear.”

[+] EnlargeCody Kessler
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsCody Kessler led USC to 10 wins last season, but his status as starting quarterback is not guaranteed.
To be clear, the Trojans wore shorts and helmets. But the lingering question throughout spring and into the fall will be whether Cody Kessler will retain his starting job, or give way to Max Browne.

Neither quarterback seemed particularly thrilled to be talking about a competition on Day 1.

“I’m just trying to get better every practice,” Kessler said. “I’m going to keep working. I’ve been competing my whole life. And even if (there wasn’t a competition) I’d keep competing. It is what it is and I’m just going to keep trying to get better.”

At first glance, the assumption is that Kessler has the inside edge given his experience. Last season he completed 236 of 361 passes for 2,968 yards with 20 touchdowns to seven interceptions. He posted a raw QBR of 59.7 with an adjusted QBR of 66.7 in guiding the Trojans to a 10-4 record and a victory in the Las Vegas Bowl, where he was named the game’s MVP.

“I thought they both did some good stuff,” Sarkisian said. “They both had some moments they’d love to have back. We have to look at the film. We’re moving at a pretty fast clip out there, and you’re trying to assess everything at once, and it’s hard to do that. There’s plenty of stuff for both of them to learn from.”

Then again, Max Wittek had more experience than Kessler heading into spring last season. So as far as Browne is concerned, it’s wide open.

“Since the day I got here we’ve all competed each and every day,” said Browne, who redshirted last season. “My mindset hasn’t changed. Even last year when it was a Week 7 game and I knew I was redshirting, I was still competing ... It’s no secret he led us to 10 wins last year. We had a lot of success. But we’re both going to come out and compete each and every day and see where the chips fall.”

Max in the middle

Those in attendance for the open practice might have noticed big No. 75 playing center. You might recall that Max Tuerk spent about a week at center last spring but couldn’t quite get the quarterback-center exchange figured out -- mostly because Tuerk’s arms are so long.

But with Marcus Martin departing -- and the new scheme being installed by Sarkisian working almost exclusively out of the shotgun -- the versatile Tuerk could be the primary guy in the middle.

“We didn’t snap any over the quarterback’s head,” Sarkisian said. “So knock on wood. And there were no grounders. That was the first thing I was concerned about coming out today.”

Tuerk is obviously a fan of the shotgun. As a consummate team player, he’s happy going wherever the team needs him, as he started 13 games at left guard and one game at right tackle last season. In his freshman season he started five at left tackle.

“He could probably play three different positions,” Sarkisian said. “We have to see how we evolve. At some point we’ll get Aundrey Walker back and Zach Banner and Jordan Simmons. We have some versatility on this front. But it is comforting to know you have an experienced player at center when you are operating at this pace.”

Speaking of pace

The hot buzz word at practice was “tempo” because of the fast-paced offense that Sarkisian is installing. The Trojans ran approximately 120 offensive plays with little time to rest in between.

The upside is that the pace boosts conditioning and gets the Trojans more prepared for a game situation. The downside is it doesn’t allow for much in-practice instruction.

“If you make a mistake, you’re glad you’re going right back,” Browne said. “If you throw a touchdown, like I did today to George Katrib, you don’t get to time to celebrate either. It works both ways. But it allows you to get into a rhythm. You can dink-and-dunk your way down the field and never really get time to breathe.”

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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Week three: Spring depth chart 

April, 5, 2013
4/05/13
8:05
AM PT
The Trojans are now in the final stretch of spring ball with just over a week of practice remaining on the schedule. As injuries continue to mount and position battles rage on, here’s how a potential depth chart just might look if one were released today.

Quarterback

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Saturday's scrimmage report

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Read full post)

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


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

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

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

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

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Spring preview: USC offense 

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

Quarterback

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