Fall position group preview: Offensive line

Maybe the key group of all that has to come through for USC this season, this offensive line has a chance to do just that.

If you're one of the many USC fans out there who thinks that if the offensive line comes through, if it lives up to its promise and recruiting stars and size and depth, if that happens, then whatever else will have to occur for this Trojans team to have a successful season will fall in place.

If you think that, you would be absolutely correct.

If this group of five returning starters plus one additional starter returning from a knee injury (starting with All-American candidate C Max Tuerk, versatile, mature G/T Toa Lobendahn who started 13 games at left guard and tackle as a true freshman, talented and humongous G Damien Mama, quick-hitting G Viane Talamaivao, more humongous RT Zach Banner and smart senior LT Chad Wheeler), another good enough to be a starter (C/G Khaliel Rodgers), three other upperclassman healthy now (Nico Falah, Chris Brown and Jordan Austin), two early-arriving freshman tackles (Chuma Edoga, Roy Hemsley) who showed real promise in the spring and one freshman at a position of need (C Cole Smith) who arrived this summer. Walkon senior G Erick Jepsen and redshirt freshman center Richie Wenzel round out the group that will be complete on Day 2 of practice when Servite's Clayton Johnson gets his blueshirt scholarship.

Add them up and that's 14 scholarship O-linemen, a far cry from the numbers in recent years and a reason big, strong, athletic Jordan Simmons, healthy at last, has moved his 6-foot-4, 330-pound frame to nose tackle.

They've done more group and 11-on-11 work than any USC O-line in memory this summer.

Put it all together and that's a nice way for the lone new coach on the staff, Bob Connelly, the run game coordinator, to start his time here. With a two-deep-plus-four roster to call upon.

And that run game is key. In three of the games that USC lost but should not have, Boston College, Arizona State and Utah, the run game let the Trojans down. The entire BC game was a ground disaster and the final series to clinch a win for a leading Trojans team in opponents' territory with less than two minutes left saw the run game stuffed when a lone first down would have won the game.

Steve Sarkisian says that's not going to happen this year. That those blown-up plays that got stuffed even with a back as good as Buck Allen won't happen again.

"We didn't handle movement at the line of scrimmage," Sark said of his starting group of three true freshmen when they faced slanting D-linemen or linebackers on the move through gaps. He thinks they will this year. And that will make all the difference.

Because when a team sells out and comes like that, "That's when the opportunity is there to make big plays if you handle it," Sark says. This team should be able to handle it.

"This is Max's offensive line," he says, and Sark has been the loudest voice calling Tuerk "the best center in the nation."

But the other thing that happens, actually two things, if USC can run it when and where they want, they should be able to pass it with less pressure and cut down on the 36 sacks allowed (five by BC, six by UCLA) and throw it deep against defenders coming up to help against the run.

Classic USC football. But that doesn't mean this team shouldn't be able to throw it 50 times a game if they have to. This group should be able to pass block just looking at their size and athleticism.

Speaking of size, USC could start a front line averaging 6-foot-6 and 326 pounds, a bigger than the Dallas Cowboys O-line, the best in football, that averages 6-4 and 318.

For Connelly, a personable Texan and football lifer who's been through tough times at Alabama and UCLA and good times at Texas-El Paso, Arizona State and Oklahoma State, this may be the chance of a lifetime to pick up this group and take them to the next level.

Banner endorses him, calling Connelly "the best coach" he's had. So there's that.

There's also this: Mama is down 40 pounds from his arrival weight of near-400. Chad is completely on time in his rehab to be back full-go in August at his heaviest weight (295), the same number that Max has been able to hold his weight through the summer.

SARK SAYS: "When you build a team, you have to start up front, and we’ve done that now by developing the players we had on the roster as well as bringing in some talented recruits. We are fortunate that all of our starters are back this year, as well as some players returning from injuries and some really good newcomers. I love our line’s overall athleticism, toughness and attitude, plus its versatility and depth. I think Max is the best center in the country and Toa is on his way to an all-star career.”


Jordan Austin, RFr., T

Zach Banner, Jr., T

Chris Brown, RFr., G

Chuma Edoga, Fr., T

Nico Falah, So., T

Roy Hemsley, Fr., T

Erick Jepsen, Sr., G

Toa Lobendahn, So., G-T

Damien Mama, So., G

Khaliel Rodgers, So., C/G

Cole Smith, In. Fr., C

Viane Talamaivao, So., G

Max Tuerk, Sr., C

Richie Wenzel, RFr., C

Chad Wheeler, Jr., T

Clayton Johnson* (IFr, not on roster yet)

Third in a series of fall position previews for the 2015 Trojans. Next: The wide receivers.

You can follow me on Twitter at @dweber3440 or email me at weber@uscfootball.com.

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