USC: Max Tuerk

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.”

3-point stance: Pac-12 adjustments

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10
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1. When USC finished practice Tuesday, center Max Tuerk and quarterback Cody Kessler stayed behind to work on snaps. Tuerk, a junior, has started 14 games at guard and six at tackle. But the Trojans need a center, so he’s learning the position this spring. He learned to tape his fingers -- two rings of tape on two fingers, one ring of tape on the other two -- and to carry a towel, all to keep sweat off the ball. He has learned to stay lower and, as he put it, get his feet in the ground faster. “The more reps you take, you don’t have to think about the snap as much,” Tuerk said. “You can think about the blocks.”

2. UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley is working more under center this spring. “It’s different,” the redshirt junior said. “Being under center and being in the shotgun are two different views. When you are under center, you are right there. ... You have to take your seven-step drop, push up in the pocket while keeping your shoulders (level).” If Hundley has a peccadillo, it is maintaining the balance of his shoulders. UCLA coach Jim Mora said he wants to work Hundley under center to expand the offense. If it helps Hundley in the 2015 NFL draft, even better.

3. Stanford wide receiver Jordan Pratt will be 29 years old when the football season begins. He enrolled after spending eight seasons pitching in the Dodgers’ minor-league system. “I’ll make a comment, ‘Yeah, I remember, Sept. 11, 2001, I got called out of my high school class,’” Pratt said. His teammates respond, “‘High school? I don’t even remember that. I was in preschool.’ There is this time gap. Sometimes I relate better to the TAs in my class than I do the other students. It’s a lot easier for me to talk to the professors. It’s a little easier for them to relate, too.”

Kessler, Tuerk already have chemistry

April, 2, 2014
Apr 2
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LOS ANGELES -- They are USC football’s MVRs: Most Valuable Roommates.

Cody Kessler and Max Tuerk are two blossoming leaders on offense for a Trojans team making a dramatic transition from an old-fashioned, take-your-time approach to a new-wave, hurry-up, blur of a style.

Tuerk and Kessler are right there in the chaotic middle of the mad rush, both on the field and off.

[+] EnlargeCody Kessler, Max Tuerk
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesCenter Max Tuerk and quarterback Cody Kessler often study film together at their off-campus apartment.
Tuerk, the new center, and Kessler, the incumbent quarterback, have already spent hours developing a rapport both at practice, where Tuerk is constantly working on shotgun snaps to Kessler, and at home, where they share an apartment two blocks from campus with wide receiver Nelson Agholor.

“I think living together makes it easier for both Cody and me,” Tuerk said, “because we’re always together, whether it’s just hanging out, playing video games or going out to get something to eat.”

Kessler grew up in Bakersfield loving country music. Tuerk, from the larger, more urban Orange County, has the same musical taste. “Yeah, I love country,” Tuerk said.

“We’re trying to get Nelson in on that, too,” said Kessler, laughing. “But he’s not buying into it.”

What they’re all buying into is new head coach Steve Sarkisian’s rapid tempo, designed to generate more plays and, they all hope, more touchdowns per game.

Kessler obviously is a key figure as the quarterback with the most experience on the roster. Happily for everyone involved, the personable junior has had little trouble adjusting. He seems to be thriving in Sarkisian’s no-huddle atmosphere.

Tuerk, on the other hand, is making a major position change. After playing and starting at both tackle and guard his first two seasons for the Trojans, the 285-pound lineman from Santa Margarita High was moved to center at the start of spring practice. No big deal -- after not having snapped a ball in his life, all he's being asked to do is fill the cleats of smooth Marcus Martin, an All-Pac-12 standout who left a year early for the NFL draft.

It sounds intimidating, except nothing seems to overwhelm Tuerk, who has calmly moved over a spot or two on the offensive line and settled in as if he’d been playing there all his life.

“I love it,” Tuerk said. “I think I’ve adjusted and I feel really good at center. The more reps I get, the more comfortable I feel. So far, I’ve been enjoying it a lot. I especially like calling out the blocking schemes before every play. The way it works is, Cody gets the call from the sideline, he repeats it to me, then I try to read the linebackers and the defensive linemen and make my call.”

When they’re not working on it on the field, they’re busy talking about it in their apartment.

“The cool thing is we watch a lot of film together,” Kessler said. “We’re always talking about what we can do to get better.”

Said Tuerk: “I’m pretty competitive, and I don’t like it when I make mistakes. Cody is great about that. He’s always telling me if there is a mistake that I should forget about it and go on to the next play.”

Added Kessler: “I think Max is doing a great job so far. He is feeling a lot more relaxed out there. The nice thing about us rooming together is that we can get in extra work. This past Sunday, Max, Nelson and I came out here and worked for an hour and a half. Max was snapping the ball to me and Nelson ran routes. It’s nice to be able to do that whenever you want.”

It’s nice to be able to kick back and relax at home, too.

“Yeah, that’s working out really well,” Tuerk said. “Cody and I, we’re both pretty loose. We just seem to get along.”

Not that they aren’t serious about the task at hand.

“It’s pretty much a perfect situation with us,” Kessler said. “We have the same goals -- to win a lot of games and to someday play at the next level.”

In the meantime, somebody cue the country music. Maybe a little Brad Paisley or Taylor Swift to play in the background.

The Trojans’ two MVRs seem more than happy to be working on a new winning groove.

Biggest shoes to fill: USC

March, 27, 2014
Mar 27
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Starters in, starters out. That's college football. Players' eligibility expires and they leave for the rest of their lives, which might include the NFL or not. And they leave behind shoes of various sizes that need to be filled.

In alphabetical order, we will survey each Pac-12 team’s most notable void. Today we look at USC.

[+] EnlargeMax Tuerk
Kelley L Cox/USA TODAY SportsMax Tuerk is the favorite to start at center for the Trojans in 2014.
Biggest shoes: C Marcus Martin

While you could make a case USC's biggest question concerns who will generate an edge pass rush on defense, Martin was as underrated a player as a first-team All-Pac-12 center could be. Not only was he a force as a blocker, he was an important leader, which is one of the reasons he was often trotted out in front of reporters when the Trojans sports information staff needed an articulate voice -- see the news conference after Lane Kiffin was fired. He was the only Trojans O-lineman who started every regular season game in the same position, that "regular season" qualifier being required because he suffered a knee injury in the finale against UCLA that prevented him from playing in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl against Fresno State. Abe Markowitz gamely filled in against the Bulldogs, but he also is gone, as is 2013 depth chart reserve Cyrus Hobbi, who left the team. Finally, Martin's decision to enter the NFL draft a year early was a bit of a surprise, at least in terms of how he was perceived at the beginning of the 2013 season.

Stepping in: Junior Max Tuerk

Tuerk is the easy, safest answer, and some observers rate it almost as a done deal. The smart, versatile lineman has already started games at guard and tackle. It's not a matter whether Tuerk will start on the line, it's where. And it might be more important to go with an experienced junior such as Tuerk at center rather than have him move outside to right tackle to replace Kevin Graf and ask a youngster to quarterback the O-line. That said, redshirt freshman Khaliel Rodgers and freshman Toa Lobendahn, who enrolled early and has been impressive this spring, also are options. In the fall, touted freshman Viane Talamaivao arrives, and fifth-year senior Giovanni Di Poalo is a dark horse option. It just seems more likely that Rodgers, Lobendahn and Talamaivao will be competing for playing time at the less demanding guard spots than center.

Previous big shoes

USC notebook: QBs in the spotlight

March, 12, 2014
Mar 12
12:00
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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.”

Spring battle spotlight: Center

March, 7, 2014
Mar 7
12:30
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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.

Replacing the Pac-12 South's early entries

January, 24, 2014
Jan 24
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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.

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.

Guertler helping USC out at tight end 

November, 7, 2013
11/07/13
10:00
AM PT
LOS ANGELES -- With the USC Trojans’ sudden dearth of tight ends due to injuries suffered in the Notre Dame game, it was out of desperation that junior walk-on offensive tackle Nathan Guertler was converted to tight end, and the results couldn’t be more satisfying.

3 up, 3 down: Notre Dame 14, USC 10

October, 20, 2013
10/20/13
5:00
AM PT
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
6:57
PM PT
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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