“My goal is to be the best tackle in the country,” Banner said. “I held myself to get to that in high school and I’ve been working my ass off for three years to get to that in college.”
That’s why certain plays from the 2014 season still bother him. And there’s one play that stands out more than any others. Banner said it eats at him every day.
With the Trojans trailing UCLA, 14-7, in the first quarter, they stopped the Bruins and took over on the 30-yard line after a shanked punt. USC drove the ball down to the 5-yard line, but faced a long fourth-and-2. Buck Allen had run the ball four times for 21 yards, so head coach Steve Sarkisian put the ball in Allen's hands and trusted his offensive line to get a push to get at least a first down and possibly a touchdown.
But the play got blown up in the backfield. Defensive lineman Owamagbe Odighizuwa got under Banner and pushed him back two yards, then came off the block to grab Allen and pull him down for no gain. Rather than evening the score and then taking the lead on the next possession, USC had to play catchup all game long and the Bruins took the victory.
“It eats at me everyday about some of the stuff that I did in some of those games,” Banner said.
The plays he remembers aren’t the successes, but the failures and those failures were the impetus for a strong offseason for Banner that has seen him lose around 25 pounds. He’s currently down to 357 pounds after playing at 383 pounds last year.
When Banner came to USC playing in the 305-315-pound range, he maintained his weight in the offseason while playing for the USC basketball team. But his sophomore year, he had surgery to correct impingement in both of his hips. The surgery freed him up, allowing him to be more flexible, but the recovery period came with a lot of down time where Banner was unable to be physically active.
“I let myself get set back when I had surgery. I put on 70-something [pounds],” Banner said. “It’s good to know and understand that what was holding me back from doing some things was the weight. I didn’t have basketball no more. I looked like Grandma Jo in there on the treadmill. I hadn’t ever been on a treadmill before in my life or elliptical. Now I’m starting to do those type of things."
That’s why Banner believes he had trouble with speed rushers off the edge last season.
“You’ve just got to think about it like pure physics. If someone’s faster than you and you’re fatter than them, you’re not going to be able to keep up with them,” he said. “There’s a lot of things last year that if I was in this weight and have the technique that I have now that I’ve been working all offseason, some of the stuff that happened last year wouldn’t have happened.”
“If you’re moving 25 pounds less, you’re moving way faster.”
Though the Lakewood, Wash. native with NFL genetics is happy with going into the season at his current weight, he wants to continue to slim down throughout the season and potentially get down to the 330-340-pound range by the end of the year.
“I feel like I made big strides in the offseason. I’m going to continue to lose some more weight. I just want to be able to have the confidence that way the younger guys can trust me that I know what I’m doing.”
If Banner is to be the best tackle in the nation, he knows he’s going to have competition…from the other side of the line where Chad Wheeler, who started at left tackle before tearing his anterior cruciate ligament against Utah in the eighth game, said he wants to be the best left tackle in the nation.
Banner said he’s fine with taking the title of best tackle in the nation and giving Wheeler the best left tackle spot.
“I’ve got to have some pride,” Banner said with a smile. “It’s like your brother. Let’s say we were twin brothers, you have to say someone is going to be best in video games.”
Wheeler is still working his way back to 100 percent after having surgery to repair his knee, but Banner has no doubts he’ll be ready for the season. While it has taken other guys with knee injuries more than a year to get back to full strength, Banner knew that wouldn’t be the case for Wheeler.
“He’s a monster. I think they put a robotic chip in his leg. He’s coming back and it’s unbelievable. Then again, like I told you guys after the Utah game when I was crying that we lost, I was crying that my buddy was hurt and he was out for the season, I told you he’s the guy I trust is going to come back and be stronger.”
What makes Wheeler the type of guy that can come back quickly?
“I don’t know. I think he’s a hippie maybe? He prays to some buddha? I really don’t know. He’s a beast though.”
With a slimmer Zach Banner on the end of the line opposite Chad Wheeler, the Trojans hope they have a bookend pair of dominant beasts.