USC: Aundrey Walker

USC offseason storylines: Offensive line

June, 3, 2014
Jun 3
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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.

Sarkisian: 'Lot of work' needed on line

May, 1, 2014
May 1
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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.”

Lobendahn gets fast start to college career 

April, 21, 2014
Apr 21
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LOS ANGELES -- USC Trojans true freshman offensive left guard Toa Lobendahn stood in the west end zone of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and wondered if he had really started in the annual spring game on Saturday in front of 17,500 tanning, cardinal and gold-clad fans.

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

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

USC notebook: QBs in the spotlight

March, 12, 2014
Mar 12
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video
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.”

Five things: Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl

December, 21, 2013
12/21/13
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Here are five things to watch for the USC Trojans (9-4) in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl matchup against Fresno State (11-1) on Saturday (12:30 p.m. PT, ABC):

1. 10 wins: The talking point that USC players and coaches used a lot over the past two weeks was the desire to get to 10 wins for the season. And the more you think about it, with all this team has gone through, it really would be a notable accomplishment. It’s not often a team has three coaches in one season, and the results usually aren’t good. If the Trojans can come away with a victory in this game against a quality opponent in Fresno State, it would be a satisfying way for this group to go out.

2. Stop that Carr: There’s a reason the Bulldogs have won 11 games, and it starts with the passing attack. Fresno State is ranked at the top of the national rankings in passing offense, their quarterback Derek Carr leads the nation in passing yards and touchdowns, and his top receiver Davante Adams tops the rankings in catches and receiving touchdowns. The Trojans – despite early season concerns in the secondary – ended up leading the Pac-12 in passing defense and a big key in this game will be the ability to get pressure up front with Devon Kennard and Leonard Williams.

3. O-line openings: The Trojans will be filling two open spots on the offensive line in this game after Marcus Martin (center) and Aundrey Walker (right guard) went out with injuries against UCLA. Fortunately, the replacements – Abe Markowitz and John Martinez – are experienced veterans, but they will have a strong test with a Fresno State defense that is tied for the national lead in sacks. It will be critical to give Cody Kessler time to throw to Marqise Lee – who is finally healthy – and Nelson Agholor to take advantage of a secondary that is ranked No. 116 in the nation against the pass.

4. You’re not in El Paso anymore: There has been a lot of talk leading into the game about the motivation factor for the Trojans. Last season, the team appeared to be less than enthused about a Sun Bowl appearance, and it showed in the performance. Fresno State is an opponent that is more than capable of beating the Trojans if there is a repeat of El Paso, but USC players and coaches say that there will be no such lack of enthusiasm for this game. In fact, several players cited a desire to play well for departed interim coach Ed Orgeron as a key factor.

5. Sark Watch: New USC coach Steve Sarkisian will be in attendance at the game, though he won’t be coaching. Regardless, it will be the first opportunity for the returning USC players to show well in front of their new coach, and you never know what can happen when a fresh set of eyes is doing the evaluations. Just ask Buck Allen – he was limited to 14 carries in the first five games under Lane Kiffin but played a larger role once Orgeron took over and became the team MVP.

USC Grades: Poor showing vs. UCLA

December, 2, 2013
12/02/13
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The tangible stakes in Saturday’s rivalry game were practically nil. Do UCLA and USC fans really care whether their team plays in the Sun Bowl or the Las Vegas Bowl? What UCLA’s 35-14 semi-domination did was send one team, UCLA, into the off-season with sky-high expectations and the other, USC, into the off-season with more uncertainty.

Some of that could be cleared up any day now, with ESPN’s Joe Schad reporting that the Trojans’ coaching search could be concluded by the middle of this week. The joy ride under interim coach Ed Orgeron would have had a far happier conclusion if his team had showed up with a little more fight in its final regular-season game.

PASSING ATTACK

The UCLA defense, plus some key early drops by his receivers, conspired to make Cody Kessler look ordinary, which is exactly what USC fans fret that he is. Kessler was sacked six times, under pressure most of the game and he completed just 17 of his 28 passes for 174 yards and a touchdown. There were times Kessler moved the team effectively, but it was a game devoid of big plays, so the momentum -- and the crowd -- never really got in the Trojans’ corner. If there was a bright spot, it was the emergence of talented tight end Xavier Grimble into the offense. He caught Kessler’s only passing touchdown in the third quarter.

Grade: C

RUSHING ATTACK

Orgeron said he was a little disappointed his team didn’t run the ball better, especially early in the game. Eventually, the run game emerged, but by then, UCLA was leading, so the Trojans were more apt to pass. Javorius Allen rushed for 123 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries, going over 100 yards for the fourth time in five games. Other than that, the Trojans mustered virtually no rushing attack. In part due to a couple of injuries, the Trojans weren’t able to establish their bread and butter -- a power run game -- and that allowed UCLA to set the tempo.

Grade: C

IN THE TRENCHES

The two turning points of Saturday’s game, both emotionally and tangibly, for USC came when two of their starting offensive linemen had to be carted off the field with injuries. Center Marcus Martin injured his knee in USC’s first possession of the first quarter and was replaced by former walk-on Abe Markowitz. Tackle Aundrey Walker broke his ankle in USC’s first possession of the second half and has already undergone surgery, meaning he’s out for the Trojans’ bowl game. He was replaced by John Martinez. Given those twin body shots, the line performed about as well as could have been expected. UCLA has some talented pass rushers, none more talented than linebacker Anthony Barr, who had two sacks and forced a fumble.

Grade: C

DEFENSE

According to Orgeron, the Trojans prepared all week to stop Brett Hundley’s quarterback draws, but it sure didn’t look like it. It seemed as if every time the Bruins needed a first down, the talented quarterback just shot up the middle for 10 to 20 yards and moved the chains, or dashed around end for a touchdown. In all, UCLA had 396 total yards of offense. Hundley ran for 80 yards and two touchdowns and completed 18 of 27 pass tries for 208 yards.

The Trojans’ pass coverage was spotty. Josh Shaw largely shut down receiver Shaq Evans, but Kevon Seymour had a rough evening.

Grade: C

SPECIAL TEAMS

In addition to the two injuries on the offensive line, this was where the biggest breakdown came. Coach John Baxter is a respected special teams coach, but in a big game, his units didn’t perform well. In fact, that’s putting it kindly. Punter Kris Albarado averaged just 33.5 yards per punt, one of them a shanked 15-yarder that set up a UCLA touchdown. More punishing were breakdowns on kick coverage. UCLA cornerback Ishmael Adams had returns of 37, 47 and 46 yards. Field position was in UCLA’s favor all game, helping tilt the game their way.

Grade: F

COACHING

The day after the most disappointing loss in his coaching life, Orgeron was back on the recruiting trail. He hosts a big weekend for recruits on Dec. 13. If reports are true and athletic director Pat Haden is looking outside for his new head coach, he will need to put some effort into finding a way to retain Orgeron, one of the nation’s best recruiters. That way, the Trojans can guarantee themselves another good class in February, just as the sanctions begin to ease. Orgeron sounded resigned to his fate. If you’re a USC coach on the bubble, losing to Notre Dame and UCLA usually bursts it. Jim Mora’s team seemed to have more consistent energy and focus.

Grade: B-

WeAreSC roundtable: Beavers then Bears

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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

3 up, 3 down: Notre Dame 14, USC 10

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

THREE UP

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

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

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

THREE DOWN

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

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

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

Veteran duo anchors right side of OL

July, 25, 2013
7/25/13
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There has been plenty of attention on the USC offensive line this spring, almost all of it pointed in three directions -- the battle for the vacant center position, Aundrey Walker’s bid to nail down the starting left tackle job, and the impact of Mike Summers, the newly hired assistant who has joined James Cregg as one of what is now two offensive line coaches on the Trojans staff.

Over on the right side of the line, meanwhile, guard John Martinez and tackle Kevin Graf have each quietly had a more-than-productive March and April. Two redshirt seniors set to start alongside each other for the third straight year, there’s nothing particularly glamorous about the hard-nosed duo, but as the unquestioned veteran leaders of an offensive line unit that is still very much a work in progress, they figure to play a vital part in determining how the group ultimately performs in the fall.

“We’re the right side, we have the most experience and we plan on leading these guys to wherever we need to go,” Martinez said.

[+] EnlargeJohn Martinez
Ric Tapia/Icon SMIWhile parts of the offensive line remain in flux, John Martinez will start at right guard for the third consecutive season.
Graf and Martinez are hoping that means a more consistent level of play for the offensive line next season. Because although it performed solidly for the most part in 2012 -- allowing just 17 sacks on the year -- it also struggled against some of the more physical defensive fronts, most notably Stanford’s and Notre Dame’s. Throw in the loss of Khaled Holmes -- the team’s starting center for the past two years -- and it becomes apparent just how crucial this spring is.

With a change in philosophy set in place by Summers, however, in addition to the two seasoned vets paving the way, it’s safe to say that the offensive line has its sights set high for 2013.

“One thing Coach Summers has brought in this spring is that we talk about being the best offensive line in the country, and that’s what our goal is,” Graf said. “We’re here to be the best. We’re here to be the greatest offensive line in the country, and that’s what we need to work harder towards.”

In Graf, the Trojans have a prototypical tackle with 6-foot-6, 300-pound size to go along with deceptive athleticism and a unique football IQ that comes with growing up in a football family. His father, Allan, and brother, Derek, both played for the Trojans on the offensive line.

Martinez, at 6-2 and 305 pounds, is more of a brawler on the interior with a strong build and quick feet. Like Graf, he has football in his genes, with a number cousins having played collegiately, and a brother, Keni Kaufusi, currently on the California roster.

Both arrived at USC as members of the Class of 2009 during the Pete Carroll era. Graf, from Agoura Hills (Calif.), and Martinez, a Salt Lake City (Utah) Cottonwood, product actually first met at the Under Armor All-American Game that year and became fast friends.

That bond has transferred over to the field where, having made a total of 25 starts next to each other, the two share a unique familiarity and comfort in the knowledge that they can always count on one another.

“We have trust,” Graf said. “I know that he’s going to have my back, and he knows that I’m going to have his, and that’s the most important thing.”

In particular, it’s the relative ease with which they can communicate with each other on the line in the heat of battle that works not only to their own benefit, but to that of the entire offense.

[+] EnlargeKevin Graf
Jason O. Watson/US PresswireRight tackle Kevin Graf will start alongside John Martinez for the third year in a row this fall.
“He knows what needs to happen if I need help, and I know what needs to happen if he needs help on certain assignments with pass protections and everything like that,” Martinez said. “So I definitely feel like familiarity and the sense of communication that we have with each other really helps out a lot during the games.”

“We’ll have full-on conversations on the line, because we know that we need to be able to communicate with each other -- we need to be able to see everything, and that definitely helps,” added Graf. “And when you’ve been training with someone next to you for three years, it’s almost easy.”

But their synchronicity on the field isn’t the only reason for their success. Having made names for themselves both in the weight room and on the practice field for the determined way in which they go about their work, they continue to strive to improve.

“We’re still getting better,” Graf said. “When we first started, we were just sophomores, and by the time you’re a senior, you’ve grown a lot in terms of your maturity, and you’ve grown up as a player and a person, but you can still get better every day, and that’s what we do.”

With a work ethic like that, their emergence as leaders over the last year has developed naturally. This spring, however, they’ve each taken that responsibility up a notch.

“I definitely think that I’ve stepped up as a leader, because now that Khaled is gone it’s our turn,” Martinez said. “You have to have someone fill that role on a team, and I feel like that’s what me and Kevin have done on the offensive line. We have the experience to lead them and to show them the path to take.”

“I’m not going to be here forever, and John isn’t going to be here forever, so when the time comes for us to leave, the younger guys need to be ready,” Graf said.

Following the lead of Graf and Martinez, there are signs the offensive line is slowly starting to come together. The two vets are part of a starting unit that features Marcus Martin at center, Max Tuerk at left guard and Walker at left tackle. Over the past two weeks of practice, there has been a noticeable improvement in the group’s level of play.

“It’s been a roller-coaster ride, but I feel like everything is starting to come together now,” Martinez said. “Spring break is over, we’ve got all of the jitters out and everyone is here to play ball. That’s what we need to do, because the offensive line had a decent season last year, and now we need to make a point to everyone else that we’re the foundation of the offense.”

If the offensive line does fulfill Martinez’s goal in establishing that mindset, it’s not far-fetched to imagine both he, as well as Graf, capping their USC careers off on the right note in 2013.

“Finishing off strong is important for us as seniors,” Martinez said. “I definitely think that we’re going to make a point to everybody that we mean business, and we’re going to hold down that right side.”

Notebook: Cravens latest to injure knee

April, 5, 2013
4/05/13
7:17
AM PT
LOS ANGELES -- Injuries continue to be one of the big stories for the Trojans this spring as it was confirmed after practice that both George Farmer and Su’a Cravens will undergo knee surgeries.

The news was more dire for Farmer after Kiffin confirmed the earlier media reports of a torn ACL and MCL in his left knee, which will force him to miss the 2013 season. For Cravens, he has a torn meniscus in his right knee and will undergo surgery Friday. The injury is the same as the one suffered by Silas Redd. Cravens is expected to miss 4-6 weeks and will be back in plenty of time for fall camp.

Su'a Cravens
Garry Paskwietz/WeAreSC.comSu'a Cravens is the latest USC player to get dinged in spring practice.
“Whenever there is an injury you hope, like Su’a, that’s it’s not going to be a long setback,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said. “With guys like George, those are the ones you feel really bad for. A guy who battles back and was playing well and then to have this setback.”

The Trojans entered the Thursday practice session with 20 players out of action because of injury and two more left practice – Torin Harris and Cyrus Hobbi.

“I don’t see any way we could practice like this in the fall. We wouldn’t be able to play a game,” Kiffin said. “Of the 22 guys who ended up being out today, 18 of them are scholarship players. With the roster reductions we already have we would not be able to give up that many players. We will start fall camp practicing this way, but I don’t think we will end fall camp this way.”

There was some good news on the injury front as Marqise Lee returned, albeit in a limited role, after missing two-and-a-half weeks with a knee injury. Lee seemed to be running fine with no major issues but he was held out of contact team drills. Kevon Seymour and Jordan Simmons also returned to action.

“Marqise was back, which was obviously good to see,” Kiffin said. “He basically took part in the first hour of practice and we’ll add to him as we go.”

George Uko was out today and J.R. Tavai took his spot with the first unit at defensive end. During the final team drill, Aundrey Walker was out and Max Tuerk had moved to center with Hobbi out, so the first unit left side of the line was walk-on Nathan Guertler at tackle and Giovanni Di Poalo at guard.

Receiver shuffle

With Farmer out, that means opportunities for players such as Victor Blackwell and De’Von Flournoy along with first-year players Darreus Rogers and Steven Mitchell. Kiffin also made sure to note the high level of play from Nelson Agholor this spring when discussing the receiver group.

(Read full post)

Week Three: Spring depth chart 

March, 29, 2013
3/29/13
8:31
AM PT
After a week away from action, the Trojans hit Brian Kennedy-Howard Jones Field on Tuesday as the spring slate of practices officially picked back up again. With a number of players coming off injuries trickling back into the rotation, not to mention some interesting position changes, there was plenty of movement up and down the lineup.

Quarterback
Max Wittek (6-foot-4, 235 pounds, RS So.) OR Cody Kessler (6-1, 215, RS So.) OR Max Browne (6-5, 215, Fr.)

Wittek stepped back into the rotation on Tuesday after missing three practices due to a sprained MCL, and while he showed some rust, USC coach Lane Kiffin is optimistic he’ll soon return to his old form, making this competition one to watch once again. Of the trio, Kessler continued to be the most consistent this week, with Browne showing promise at times.

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Week Two: Spring depth chart 

March, 15, 2013
3/15/13
9:08
AM PT
The Trojans are almost two weeks through spring ball, and while it is still early, here’s a look at how the team’s depth chart might shake out if the season were to start today.

Quarterback
Cody Kessler (6-1, 215, RS So.) OR Max Browne (6-5, 215, Fr.); Max Wittek (6-foot-4, 235 pounds, RS So.)


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Week One: Spring depth chart

March, 8, 2013
3/08/13
11:43
AM PT
With two spring practice sessions in the books for the Trojans, it’s time to take a quick look at how a team depth chart might look if it were released today.

Quarterback
Max Wittek (6-foot-4, 235 pounds, RS So.) OR Cody Kessler (6-1, 215, RS So.) OR Max Browne (6-5, 215, Fr.)

[+] EnlargeMax Wittek
AP Photo/Danny MoloshokMax Wittek has looked strong as part of a three-man competition for the starting quarterback job.
Kessler opened up spring camp with a big performance on Tuesday, but Wittek has certainly had his moments, and even the young freshman, Browne, has caught USC coach Lane Kiffin’s eye, making this battle too close to call. And that’s the way it could stay throughout the spring, as Kiffin revealed he’s in no hurry to name a starter.

Tailback
Silas Redd (5-10, 200, Sr.); D.J. Morgan (5-10, 190, RS. Jr.) OR Tre Madden (6-1, 220, RS So.) OR Javorious Allen (6-1, 210, RS So.) OR Justin Davis (6-1, 215, Fr.)

With a full season under his belt at USC, Redd looks comfortable and focused as the starter. Morgan showcased a couple of big plays this week, while Madden looked much sharper than you might imagine a year removed from his knee injury. Davis, meanwhile, has been perhaps the hit of the early-entrant group so far, making the most of his limited carries in practice.

Fullback
Soma Vainuku (6-0, 250, RS. So.); Jahleel Pinner (5-11, 225, So.)

Two of the team's hardest workers, Vainuku and Pinner alternated as the team’s primary fullbacks. It remains to be seen, however, if they’ll take on a bigger role in the offense.

(Read full post)

Roundtable: Season in review 

November, 29, 2012
11/29/12
1:26
PM PT
Marqise LeeMatt Kartozian/US PresswireMarqise Lee's 345-yard, two-touchdown performance against Arizona was universally lauded by the WeAreSC roundtable as one of the Trojans' best performances.
There were many ups and downs during the 2012 season. Give your responses on the following items (good or bad) that helped shape the season.

Biggest individual plays

Garry Paskwietz

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Grades: UCLA 38, USC 28

November, 17, 2012
11/17/12
4:02
PM PT
PASADENA, Calif. -- The USC Trojans (No. 18 BCS, No. 21 AP) started poorly, then rebounded, then played more mistake-ridden football in the second half and lost, 38-28, to the UCLA Bruins (No. 17 BCS, No. 17 AP) in a back-and-forth game at the Rose Bowl on Saturday.

Here's a report card for the Trojans, who dropped to 7-4 overall and 5-4 in the Pac-12 with the loss.

GradePASSING ATTACK

Matt Barkley and Marqise Lee's crucial connections seemed off until late in Saturday's game, and that might be the single biggest reason why USC lost. Barkley's two picks were just puzzling, too, and they were both intended for Lee, so the Trojans didn't learn their lesson from last week. But Robert Woods did prove he can still catch the ball.

GradeRUSHING ATTACK

With Silas Redd still less than 100 percent, Curtis McNeal again stepped up and carried the ball nicely. Yet, as has been the case all year save for last week, he didn't get many opportunities early on. Would the game have ended differently if he had? We'll never know, but McNeal did finish with 158 yards.

GradeIN THE TRENCHES

One of the better games for both units, actually. The USC defensive line, led by Morgan Breslin, pressured Brett Hundley most of the game, and the O-line did a better-than-expected job protecting Barkley. The picks weren't because he had no time -- they were just bad decisions. Aundrey Walker was beaten badly on the hit that knocked Barkley out, though.

GradeDEFENSE

This really wasn't that bad. A lot of UCLA's points came directly off turnovers, and there's little the Trojans' defense could have done there. They held the Bruins plenty of times in the second half, and it wasn't their fault that the USC offense couldn't match UCLA. But Monte Kiffin will still be under fire come Monday.

GradeSPECIAL TEAMS

After two straight great special-teams games, John Baxter's unit regressed Saturday. There was a missed extra point, missed field goal, blocked field goal and blocked punt, and nothing positive from the Trojans to offset them. It's tough to expect a still-hurt Andre Heidari to convert a 44-yard field goal in that weather when his season long was 41.

GradeCOACHING

Yes, USC rebounded from a terrible start, to the coaches' credit, but hasn't that terrible start happened too many times this season to make it still-defensible? It sure seems like it. A stellar coaching job would involve getting your players ready before kickoff, not 30 minutes after it. What was Kiffin's motivation to avoid running so desperately until late in the game?

SPONSORED HEADLINES

2013 TEAM LEADERS

PASSINGATTCOMPYDSTD
C. Kessler361236296820
RUSHINGCARYDSAVGTD
J. Allen1357855.814
T. Madden1387035.13
RECEIVINGRECYDSAVGTD
M. Lee5779113.94
N. Agholor5691816.46
TEAMRUSHPASSTOTAL
Offense174.2218.1392.3
TEAMPFPAMARGIN
Scoring28.521.37.2