LOS ANGELES -- On a unit that most believe can make or break the 2014 season, USC's offensive line is a major question mark.
The Trojans, however, are hoping that some of those questions can be answered by the time spring ball concludes on April 16.
If redshirt freshman offensive guard candidate Khaliel Rodgers has a vote, look for him to make a strong bid to emerge as an answer. With 2013 starting senior right guard Aundrey Walker recovering from broken ankle and starting junior left guard Max Tuerk auditioning at center, the vacancy signs are out at both guard positions.
“We have a unique blend on the offensive line, some players with a great deal of experience and some very young players,” first-year head coach Steve Sarkisian said.
Rodgers would classify as one of Sarkisian’s very young players, and he hopes to take advantage of his spring opportunities before the anticipated summer arrival of freshmen offensive linemen Damien Mama, Viane Talamaivao and Chris Brown.
After successfully completed the first week of spring ball as the starting right guard, Rodgers has caught the eye of offensive line coach Tim Drevno, who has an appreciation of Rodgers' talent.
“Football is important to him,” Drevno said. “Khaliel wants to be good, and he’s a student of the game.”
Although the Trojans donned both helmets and shoulders pads for the first time last Friday, Rodgers is pleased with the transition from last season’s offense to this spring’s radical offensive conversion. Despite having to learn new offensive formations, plays, terminology and pace, he says he and his teammates are upbeat.
“It’s going great,” Rodgers said. “I’ve got to get used to it like everybody else. The team is working together to get used to it, and the new offense keeps the defense up on its toes and tires them out.”
For Rodgers, the transition forces the 6-foot-2, 310-pound guard to learn a new system, and it also puts a premium on the type of physical shape not necessitated in the past.
“It’s been a challenge, but you have to get through it,” said Rodgers, a policy and planning development major.
Whether it's at guard or center, his future position has long been a hot topic. The original thought was that he’d audition first for center and then guard, but after the first week of practice, the thought of Khaliel playing center has been temporarily tabled.
Rodgers attitude is a coaching staff’s dream.
“Wherever my coaches want to be put me, I am there for them,” said Rodgers, who hails from New Castle, Del., and is a former Elkton (Md.) Eastern Christian Academy teammate of current Trojans redshirt freshman defensive lineman Kenny Bigelow.
Rodgers had a number of postseason prep honors coming out of Eastern Christian Academy and was ultimately selected to play in the U.S. Army All-America Game. Battling many of the top prep defensive linemen in the country in San Antonio, Rodgers established himself both in practices and in the game as one of the elite guard prospects in the nation.
The intense and serious lineman has seen growth in his game since coming to USC, and he believes the best is yet to come.
“I’ve improved tremendously since coming to USC my first year by learning the whole offense, the basics of football, the defensive fronts and all that,” Rodgers said. “I am very ahead right now, and I just need to get better now with the spread offense and being fast with it.”
And does the 20-year-old feel he and his teammates were truly prepared for the first week of spring ball and Sarkisian’s warp-speed pace and no-huddle execution?
“We’ve definitely got conditioned for it each day for the past seven weeks,” Rodgers informed. “It’s just what you’ve got to prepare for.”
Rodgers knows that conditioning in this style of offense is an ongoing effort, and tempo is everything.
“I would like to see my stamina get better since this isn’t a pro-style offense no more,” Rodgers said. “You’ve got to run, get these plays going, and get ready for the snap.”
As with the rest of his offensive line teammates, Rodgers is under a new offensive line coach in Drevno, who replaced the departed Mike Summers, who is now at Florida.
Rodgers practically gushes at the thought of learning his craft from one of the best in Drevno, the former San Francisco 49ers offensive line coach.
“He’s a perfect coach, just awesome,” Rodgers said. “He teaches us technique, the whole basics of the game, and he’s a great coach overall.”
And Drevno feels pretty good about Rodgers.
“He has all the characteristics to be good,” Drevno said. “He’s better than just a redshirt freshman.”
Rodgers makes no bones of what he expects from his offensive line and team in 2014.
“We want to be great, the best in the Pac-12, and hopefully go on and win the national championship.” Rodgers said.
And those aren’t just guarded comments.