After starting six games at center last year, Khaliel Rodgers seemed primed to compete for the starting role against Toa Lobendahn and Nico Falah this season.
Instead, Rodgers is transitioning to the dark side — moving over to USC's defensive line.
The redshirt junior missed all of the spring and wasn’t able to participate in the first half of summer after shoulder surgery, missing an opportunity to establish himself with first-year offensive line coach Neil Callaway. With Lobendahn cleared to participate from the torn anterior cruciate ligament that pushed Rodgers into the starting lineup last season and Falah having a strong offseason, Rodgers felt he could better help the team trying to break into the defensive line rotation where the Trojans lost five seniors.
“It was my choice,” Rodgers said. “I talked to coach [Clay Helton] about it. This is an opportunity for me. I felt like our team was lacking in that area. I felt like I wanted to make this move, see the film more and just help my team.”
Rodgers said he went to Helton in the middle of June and presented the idea, but he isn’t ruling out playing offense.
“I went to talk to him and just expressed how I felt. And we made the move,” he said. “He kind of wants me at both. We’re going to meet again about it, but other than that we’re just working both ways and keeping it going.”
“It’s great man. It’s crazy, but it is what it is. I’m having fun.”
At 6-foot-3, 315 pounds, Rodgers has the size to step right in as a defensive tackle — where he lined up in Friday’s player-run practice. He immediately becomes one of the most athletic interior linemen USC has. He says his surgically repaired shoulder is “stronger than ever” and isn’t worried about the impact his new position will have on it.
“I feel like if you rehab the right way and treat your body right, you’ll be fine,” Rodgers said. “I’m the strongest I’ve been since I’ve been here. I’m 100 percent.”
Under Bigelow’s tutelage, his focus is learning the hand placement and technique vital to being an impact trench warrior.
Since switching over to defensive line position meetings, Rodgers feels he has been learning the scheme quickly, but the challenge will be implementing the pass rush and run-stuffing techniques he has been learning when he is on the field.
He is confident it won’t take him long to piece it together.
“I’ll have that down pat by training camp. Other than that, you have to have an edge playing on the dark side. You have that and you’re halfway there. It’s a different experience on the defensive side.”
An energetic and emotional player, Rodgers shouldn’t have a problem with that half. His defensive teammates have been excited to have him join.
“They all are like kind of glad that I made the move. They all have been congratulating me and they see like how athletic I am in team run and all of that. They are really surprised and they’re happy that I’m actually over there. It’s just amazing man.”