Zach Banner wants to play left tackle in the NFL. He doesn’t shy away it.
The gargantuan 6-foot-9 tackle has played right tackle throughout his USC career, but has moved over to left tackle on occasion to fill in when necessary, including a pair of starts against Utah and Wisconsin last season.
Last Monday, when Chad Wheeler walked onto the Coliseum field without any pads, it was time for Banner to take over on the left side once again.
Wheeler is dealing with the always difficult plantar fasciitis, of which the best way to remedy is to be off your feet as much as possible. To combat the injury, USC has been very cautious with Wheeler, holding him out of practice for the last week. That has led to Banner playing on the left side and sophomore Chuma Edoga filling in at right tackle.
It was a similar lineup to one the Trojans used in the spring when Wheeler and Edoga were battling for a spot in the starting lineup with Banner locked in to play one of the tackle positions. At the end of spring, Wheeler’s experience and size won out over Edoga's athleticism. After flipping between the two tackle positions in the spring, Banner went to work honing his craft on the right side.
“Post-spring until now I was working right,” Banner said. “I was working heavy. It's comfortable, man.”
But when Wheeler went down, Banner was taken out of his comfort zone. He had been in control through the first handful of practices while on the right side, but in the Coliseum he initially struggled, by the lofty standards Banner has established, during one-on-one drills.
“There's a couple of times where I got beat in the one-on-ones in the pass rush. We come out into the team run and I'm kicking ass. That's how it's got to be,” Banner said. “I’ve got to fill in for my best friend. He's hurt right now.
“It's a hard transition. I'm not going to act. When you have a game week during the season and you have a senior schedule like I do where you only have two classes, you're able to come in and do extra sets. Do extra work on the left side. It's hard to do it during camp because you don't have extra time to add a ton of stuff. So I'm getting that left side down. I love the challenge.”
Moving from one tackle position to another tackle spot may not seem like the toughest task, but suddenly everything is reversed.
“The techniques and fundamentals are different. The assignments are not,” offensive line coach Neil Callaway said. “You just have to realize where you're at, but it is a different deal. On the right side, you play different. You step right foot most of the time. Left side, you step left foot most of the time.”
That first step is the biggest change. On either side, the tackle’s initial step is with the outside foot. That means an offensive lineman is putting all of his weight on his inside leg and pushing off with that upfoot. Linemen train their legs and hips, so that the power step to retreat in pass coverage becomes second nature. It becomes a fast-twitch motion they are capable of doing without hesitation.
Banner believes that transition period could take an entire offseason of training for a lineman to switch legs and get to peak performance.
“Hopefully one year in the future an NFL team would tell me 'Hey, we're going to have you play left [tackle] this season,’” he said. “The whole offseason I'm going to work that side. Then it's going to be comfortable as hell when I get to training camp.”
But this fall, he’s making strides in just a week. Banner said last week that he had to step up his performance and he feels he has done that.
“I definitely feel like I've progressed at the left tackle position,” Banner said Monday after USC’s return to the Coliseum for a scrimmage. “I feel like I'm getting better and better every day with that -- switching to that side -- just like I thought I would. Just because the time and dedication I'm putting into this man. I want it to not be a difference of what side I play on. I think I was able to do that last year at a high level. I want to be able to do that again this year.”
The offense struggled early in Monday’s scrimmage, but slowly but surely began rolling later in the practice, especially in the two-minute drills where the offense was able to move the football under both quarterbacks. Callaway wasn’t pleased with the performance overall, but Banner was more optimistic.
“As a team, I think we're great. We moved the ball pretty well when we started getting going. Slow start, but we can fix that. We've got 16 more practices. I'm excited.”
The Trojans should be excited as well...at having such a versatile big man that is willing to play whichever side needed.
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