USC’s offensive lines over the past few years have left plenty to be desired since the dominant units of the Pete Carroll era.
Granted, the Trojans have produced a fair number of outstanding linemen like Tyron Smith and Matt Kalil, but they have struggled to put together a unit that could control a game.
In 2013, the offensive line featured stellar individuals like Marcus Martin, Max Tuerk and Kevin Graf, but it still never reached the level Trojans fans have come to expect from the group.
This year, under the tutelage of former Stanford and 49ers offensive line coach Tim Drevno, the Trojans have the opportunity to field an impressive line if they can get the most out of crop of young and talented players.
What happened last year:
Considering all the trouble USC had with injury in 2013, it’s somewhat of a surprise that the Trojan offensive line went through most of the season unscathed.
Chad Wheeler started every regular season game at left tackle, as did Martin at center. Graf missed one game and that one game was Tuerk’s lone trip away from left guard. Right guard was the only position with any turnover and that featured just two players — John Martinez and Aundrey Walker.
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Granted, the UCLA game knocked both Martin and Walker out of the bowl game, but in general the line was as stable as it has been in years.
Martin earned a first team All-Pac-12 berth while Tuerk and Graf appeared in the honorable mentions.
Still, it wasn’t all rosy.
The Trojans were 90th in the nation and eighth in the Pac-12 in sacks allowed. They were similarly ranked in tackles for loss allowed.
What’s gone on in camp:
The news from camp signals a mostly settled line up for the offensive line.
The departure of Martin resulted in Tuerk’s move to center where he has honed his snapping skills since the spring.
Of course, Tuerk’s move opened up the left guard position, which spring enrollee Toa Lobendahn has locked up with an impressive camp.
Wheeler remains at left tackle and has been praised for his leadership in bringing along the youngsters and handling of the HUNH (hurry-up, no-huddle) offense.
The right side of the line remains the least clear.
Even though Walker has been a regular starter for two seasons, the combination of his rehab from a broken ankle and the questions surrounding his toughness and work ethic have stood in the way of him securing a starting job again this season.
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At right guard, redshirt freshman Khaliel Rodgers seems like the first choice. Unfortunately, Rodgers sprained his knee earlier this week and his availability for the season opener is in doubt.
Even then, indications are that true freshman Damien Mama may have played his way into at least a share of the starter’s snaps against Fresno State as Sarkisian plans to use a rotation to compensate for the speed of the offense.
Redshirt sophomore Zach Banner has spent most of fall camp running with the ones at right tackle and was praised by Sarkisian as one of USC’s most improved. Having said that, Walker has gotten some looks there as well with the coaching staff complimenting his improved showings in recent practices.
What to expect:
The Trojans boast an experienced anchor in Tuerk at center which should help negate losing Martin to the NFL.
You couldn’t ask for a more intelligent player to act as the quarterback of the offensive line. At the same time, Tuerk possesses all the physical attributes you could want from a top class lineman.
Similar praise can be heaped on Wheeler, who was named to the Athlon Freshman All-American third team for his work last season. There’s every reason to believe that Wheeler will progress much as Tuerk has.
In that sense, USC has the two most important positions on the line — center and left tackle — locked down by two top quality athletes.
The big worry hangs over the three remaining spots which will more than likely be filled by talented but inexperienced players like Lobendahn, Rodgers, Mama, and Banner.
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Rodgers and Banner have at least spent time at the college level. The latter made two appearances as a back up at the beginning of last season.
When it comes to Lobendahn and Mama, however, the proof will be in the pudding. It’s never ideal to start a single true freshman to open a season, let alone two. Still, if you’re going to do so you could do worse than fielding two of the top lineman coming out of high school last year. Both have the size and the skill set to excel in college. USC just needs them to progress at a rapid pace.
Walker’s availability as an experienced stopgap in any of those open positions could be key, but as a senior with two years under his belt, anything short of starting would be disappointing. At the very least, he can take over if any of the younger players appears overwhelmed.
All in all, the USC offensive line has a great deal of potential but is fielding a great deal of risk as well.
Who will break out:
Once the Trojans had finalized this year’s early enrollees in January, most observers singled out Lobendahn as among the most likely to make an impact straight away.
He’s delivered on that promise through spring and fall camps and it seems just as likely that he’ll establish himself as a valuable member of the offensive line through the season.
With the advantage of being flanked by the safety blanket of Tuerk and Wheeler on either side, Lobendahn won’t exactly be thrown to the wolves.