USC Football: New Faces, Position Changes Shaping Offensive Line
Of the many changes a new season brings to USC, one of the more significant is the restructuring of its offensive line.
The Trojans were young and lacked depth across the front five in 2013, two traits that were readily apparent at times. USC surrendered 34 sacks on the season, 21st-most in the nation, and the unit's growing pains led to some offensive struggles in the first half of the campaign.
The improvement of both quarterback Cody Kessler and the team as a whole coincided with improved offensive line play. However, the early departure of center Marcus Martin for the NFL draft and a rash of injuries challenged the group in the initial workouts of 2014.
Various offensive linemen have used the vacancies this spring to develop, which should manifest in the 2014 season as some sorely needed depth.
USC will return the injured among its offensive line ranks, including Jordan Simmons, Nico Falah and 2013 starter Aundrey Walker, and that's good news. With head coach Steve Sarkisian introducing a hurry-up, no-huddle offensive scheme, the Trojans will need as many game-ready contributors as they can muster.
A starting guard in 2013, Max Tuerk transitioned to center during spring practice to fill the void Martin's early departure left. He briefly competed for the position in 2013 before Martin won the starting job, and Tuerk settled in at guard.
Early reviews of Tuerk's return performance at center thus far are positive.
"The snaps, from where he was Day 1 to now, it’s 100 times better,” Kessler said per the Orange County Register. “He’s doing a great job."
Tuerk credits the new offense in part for this smooth transition.
"I got the shotgun down pretty good," he told FoxSports.com.
True freshman Toa Lobendahn wasted no time integrating into the college game. The early enrollee and 4-star recruit from La Habra, Calif., had an opportunity to play with USC's first string at guard as Walker and Simmons nursed injuries.
Lobendahn ran with the chance and could be in the starting lineup come August. That's a meaningful accomplishment for a player with all of 14 collegiate practices to his credit.
"It's not easy when you're supposed to still be a senior in high school," Sarkisian told the Los Angeles Times.
Even if the freshman does not crack the first unit, he has ensured himself an active role in the front five.
Redshirt sophomore Zach Banner is the biggest body on the USC offensive line at 6'9" and 345 pounds. He is also a former 4-star recruit, one of the most coveted offensive linemen of the 2012 signing class.
But Banner has yet to make a collegiate splash. That's changing. Banner has used this spring to compete for a prominent role at tackle in 2014.
"I earned it,” Banner told the Los Angeles Daily News. “The coaches see how hard I’ve worked. I feel like a whole new player."
Indeed, the new coaching staff has taken stock on Banner's progression, as Sarkisian expressed to USCTrojans.com.
A lot of his future will center around his confidence continuing to grow. He's a very bright guy. He's physically gifted enough, it's just a matter of getting him knowing that he is capable of doing it. I think he's been showing that, especially in the past couple of days.
With a new coaching staff and system, there are opportunities for new players to earn prominent roles in the Trojans lineup. Redshirt freshman Khaliel Rodgers conveyed that sentiment to USCTrojans.com.
"There are no certain spots on this depth chart so we're just going to have to work hard regardless," he said.
Rodgers stepped in at right guard this spring and began the process of acclimating to USC's new offensive scheme.
"Grasping this new offense, techniques that go with it [and] just gelling as a team," he told USCTrojans.com the points of emphasis for the offensive line. "Things change and you just have to adjust. Coming in with this new offense is a challenge, but we're used to it."