The offensive line remains undoubtedly the biggest question mark for the Trojans heading into the 2014 season.
Will this line provide quarterback Cody Kessler enough protection to throw the football? Will they be able to block well enough to establish a run game?
And who will snap the football?
Looking at the roster, and seeing the line in person, it appears the Trojans are guard heavy and light on the tackles.
“We have a unique blend on the offensive line, some players with a great deal of experience and some very young players,” said USC coach Steve Sarkisian. “All of our linemen, though, will be learning a new system, so our ability to teach it to them will be critical.”
The Trojans will be learning from their third offensive line coach in the past three years as coach Tim Drevno takes over the group.
Key Losses: Marcus Martin (NFL), Kevin Graf (Graduation)
Losses: John Martinez (Graduation), Abe Markowitz (Graduation)
Key Returners: Max Tuerk (Jr.), Chad Wheeler (RS Soph.), Aundrey Walker (Sr.)
Returners: Jordan Simmons (RS soph.), Zach Banner (RS Soph.), Nathan Guertler (RS Sr.), Giovanni Di Paolo (RS Sr.)
Key Newcomers: Khaliel Rodgers (RS Fr.), Toa Lobendahn (Fr.) Damien Mama (Fr.), Viane Talamaivao (Fr.)
Newcomers: Nico Falah (RS Fr.), Jordan Austin (Fr.), Chris Brown (Fr.)
2013 Review: Former USC coach Lane Kiffin made a move to start the 2013 season that not many could have predicted by placing redshirt freshman Chad Wheeler at left tackle and moving Max Tuerk into left guard.
The musical chairs didn’t end there, as Marcus Martin took over at center for the departed Khaled Holmes.
Aundrey Walker was placed at right guard, moving in from left tackle, in place of John Martinez – who had been a multiple year starter for the Trojans.
The only player on the 2013 offensive line who started the season in the same position as 2012 – and stayed there throughout the year – was right tackle Kevin Graf.
Walker went down near the end of the Trojans season – against UCLA – with a season ending ankle injury. He remained sidelined throughout spring practices recovering.
2014 Outlook: If there was one position group going into the season surrounded by question marks, it’s undoubtedly the offensive line.
Graf, Martin, and Martinez are all gone and it’s a plethora of young talent who will most likely be called upon.
Breaking spring practice, it appeared that left tackle – with Chad Wheeler- is the only spot that could be etched in stone.
Sarkisian’s new offense isn’t making the offensive line jigsaw puzzle any easier. Moving away from playing under center and putting the quarterback into the shotgun formation, the Trojans had difficulty snapping the ball throughout 15 spring practices and the struggles continued through the 15 summer player-run practices.
Junior Max Tuerk was the first-team center throughout both spring and summer, but Sarkisian did indicate he wasn’t certain Tuerk would be a permanent fix.
Over the summer, true freshmen Toa Lobendahn and Viane Talamaivao took reps at the position as did redshirt senior Giovannie DiPaolo.
Of all four potential centers, it was Lobendahn who appeared to be the most consistent with his snaps – though he is not listed at the position on Sarkisian’s preseason depth chart.
Watch for a battle to rage at right guard between returning starter Aundrey Walker and redshirt freshman Khaliel Rodgers. It was Rodgers who filled in at the position throughout the spring and summer in Walker’s absence. And it might be the time for a change at the position, with Walker proving over the last two seasons he has the physical ability to play the position – but has yet to show a consistent mentality when approaching the football field.
If Tuerk remains at center, it is most likely Lobendahn – the midyear enrollee – will play at left guard. He’s proven to be a quick study and his body is already taking the form of an upperclassman.
…And what about right tackle? Graf was a three year starter and it will be tough to replace the veteran player. Nathan Guertler and Zach Banner are listed as option 1A and 1B on the pre-camp depth chart.
Guertler has more experience on the line for the Trojans, but neither he nor Banner have seen a significant amount of game reps.
A too-early-to-tell project has the Trojans line looking like this:
Right tackle: Zach Banner
Right guard: Khaliel Rodgers
Center: Max Tuerk
Left guard: Toa Lobendahn
Left tackle: Chad Wheeler
USC brought in a stock of freshmen in their 2014 recruiting class, including Damien Mama, Viane Talamaivao, Jordan Austin, and Chris Brown. While they haven’t been mentioned, it is possible that more than one of them will be called upon early this season. Through summer practices, Talamaivao looks most ready