USC: Jordan Austin
Both guard spots open
That’s particularly the case at the guard positions, where, during spring drills, the Trojans featured a starting duo of early-entrant freshman Toa Lobendahn at left guard and second-year freshman Khaliel Rodgers at right guard.
And while both players – particularly Lobendahn -- showed promise, the entire competition at those spots is set to change dramatically as the Trojans gain an influx of talent from incoming freshmen as well as players returning from injury.
Of those players on the mend, senior Aundrey Walker, who is returning from a broken ankle, will be watched with particular interest. Establishing himself as a reliable starter at right guard in 2013 after an up-and-down 2012 campaign at tackle, he possesses veteran experience that could be invaluable to this unit.
Jordan Simmons, returning from a torn ACL, is a big mauler who was really starting to stand out in practice prior to his injury in the fall, and he’s another player who could make a run at a starting job on the interior.
Of course, in the case of both Walker and Simmons, it’s how their recovery goes, and what kind of shape they come back in -- particularly with the conditioning required for the new offense -- that will likely play the biggest role in determining whether or not they’re able to jump in and perform at a high level when fall camp opens up.
And then there is fifth-year senior Giovanni Di Poalo, as well as a pair of incoming freshmen guard candidates -- Damien Mama and Viane Talamaivao. Both youngsters arrive not only with more than their fair share of accolades, but also with unique talent and tremendous size -- giving them the look of potential instant impact performers.
Center of attention
With Martin off to the NFL, one of the new staff’s biggest priorities heading into spring practice was to find a capable starter at center. Max Tuerk, a tried and tested veteran who started 13 games at left guard in 2013, and the majority of the prior season at left tackle, wound up getting the call. While he did have some occasional difficulties in the snapping department, he performed solidly for the most part.
If Sarkisian and Co. did decide to go with someone other than Tuerk here, it’s a virtual certainty that the junior would still line up as a starter somewhere else. Arguably the Trojans’ sturdiest pound-for-pound offensive lineman, he could conceivably slide back over to left guard or either of the tackle spots without a hitch.
Stability at tackle
While the interior of the line still isn’t totally set, the Trojans do appear to be in better shape at both of the tackle spots -- at least when it comes to the starters.
No player drew more praise from Sarkisian following spring drills than third-year sophomore left tackle Chad Wheeler. Having started every game last season, he looks primed for a fantastic 2014 campaign.
Over on the right side, the emergence of Zach Banner -- who sat out most of last season after having hip surgery -- was one of the great revelations of the spring. Performing at the highest level of his career, the 6-foot-9, 345-pounder took over with the No. 1 group in place of Nathan Guertler midway through camp and never looked back. Considering the fact that he said that he wasn’t even quite back to 100 percent during those workouts, there’s reason to believe he’s only going to get better, and it will be interesting to see just how much farther he can continue to progress this offseason.
Still, Drevno needs to find out who else he can count on to contribute at tackle, if nothing else, to provide depth. Early entrant freshman Jordan Austin and Guertler were the primary backups in the spring, and then there’s also Nico Falah -- returning from a back injury. Highly touted incoming freshman Chris Brown has also been taking reps at right tackle during summer drills.
“It was overwhelming. Well, not really overwhelming but joyful,” Lobendahn said moments after completing his first spring game. “It was great being in front of all these fans.”
It’s been quite a spring of learning, performing and adjusting to life on a college campus for Lobendahn, who left La Habra (Calif.) High after the 2013 fall semester of his senior year to enroll in time for spring practice.
“For the most part our conditioning was good [on Tuesday], so it showed a willingness by the players to work during spring break,” Sarkisian said. “Coming out of the break there were some key things that our staff wanted to focus on, the first one being pad level. That was a point of emphasis today, especially late in the practice. The ability of our defense to tackle and attempt to strip the football was another priority, and I thought that was evident. And I thought the quarterbacks made quicker decisions today, which was key coming out of the break.”
Sarkisian continues to emphasize the uptempo aspect of practice, which is combined with multiple periods of walk-through teaching each day that serve as a direct contrast to the frenzied pace of team drills.
“I think the players are getting more comfortable with the uptempo part of things,” Sarkisian said. “Things even got a little feisty at the end, which is good. But I always say that if you have time to yack at the guy across from you, then we aren’t going fast enough.”
There were several defensive players who stood out on Tuesday, including Hayes Pullard with a big hit on Ty Isaac, J.R. Tavai with a sack of Cody Kessler, Charles Burks with a sack of Jalen Greene, Chris Hawkins with a pass breakup against Darreus Rogers, and a solid run stop up the middle from Claudeson Pelon and Anthony Sarao.
“I thought our communication was much better defensively,” Sarkisian said. “We’ve put in a lot for the defense and it’s been a challenge, but I think this is one area where the walk-throughs really help us, not just the guys on the field but the 20 guys who aren’t practicing are getting valuable reps.”
There was continued experimentation along the offensive line as early entry freshman Toa Lobendahn got extended work with the first team at left guard, while the second-unit tackles were switched for a while with Zach Banner moving to the right side and Jordan Austin switching to the left.
“We looked at film of Lobendahn over the break and said, ‘This guy has a real chance,’ ” Sarkisian said. “He’s a real mature kid, he works at it, he studies, he prepares.”
It was also a good day for the passing game, as both Buck Allen and George Farmer stood out. Allen had a pair of long gains on wheel routes from Kessler, and Farmer, who was wearing a yellow jersey to signify no contact, caught a deep ball from Max Browne as well as a nice grab on an intermediate route. Browne also hit Nelson Agholor with a deep pass.
Among those in attendance at practice were signees Damien Mama, Adoree' Jackson and Ajene Harris, as well as verbal commit Ricky Town.
Why would Drevno leave the highly successful San Francisco 49ers and long-time mentor Jim Harbaugh and return to the college game? After all, the NFL offers a great salary, a tremendous retirement plan for assistant coaches, and one doesn’t have to deal with the non-stop world of recruiting.
“The big draw for me was USC,” said Drevno, a Southern California native. “My grandfather went to USC -- a 1951 graduate of the pharmacy school -- my sister is a 1982 graduate in hospital administration, and I grew up a USC fan going to games.”
The dream of his youth was to be a USC tailback and receive all the acclaim that goes with one of college football’s most storied positions.
“I used to be on my mom’s bed and would jump over the bed acting like I was Marcus Allen,” said Drevno, a former all-league lineman at South Torrance (Calif.) High. “I wanted to be a tailback, but I grew up to be an offensive lineman.”
Although he played at Cal State Fullerton, where he received his degree in criminal justice in 1992, you get the impression that Drevno is living a second childhood after being named the Trojans offensive line coach.
“I love the man,” said the 44-year-old Drevno. “He taught me to run the ball first and be physical up front -- attack each day with enthusiasm unknown to mankind. You’re either getting better or you’re getting worse; you’re never staying the same. Be the best at whatever you do.”
Drevno’s 49ers résumé is impressive. In 2013, tackle Joe Staley and guard Mike Iupati made the Pro Bowl. In 2012, all five of the 49ers’ line starters were selected for the Pro Bowl, and Iupati was a first-team All-Pro selection. Not bad for a coach whose previous coaching stops also include Cal St. Fullerton, Montana State, UNLV, San Jose State, Idaho, and the University of San Diego.
So should Trojans fans soon expect the same type of powerful offensive lines that Drevno formed with the 49ers and Stanford?
“First, we’ll have to see what we’re working with and we’ll piece it together as we go,” Drevno said.
And what will it take for the Trojans to play Drevno’s physical brand of offensive line football?
“Covering somebody up, moving your feet and hands, and getting after it,” Drevno said. “It’s about both attitude and technique. This game is about blocking and tackling. Those are the qualities it takes to win, and the physicality comes later.
“All of football is a mindset when it comes to physical play. You have to work at it to be good at it. You just can’t do one thing and be one-dimensional. It’s a want to and a brotherhood in the room. You have to want to take ownership.”
Despite the Trojans limited numbers, Drevno takes a practical yet positive approach as his unit embarks on a new system.
“We’ve got a great group to work with and we have 10 healthy guys right now,” Drevno said. “We have other guys that will be healthy soon, and you just push forward. Guys are working hard and getting better every day. You coach them hard.”
It was feared during the recruiting period that Drevno’s late addition to the staff might affect USC’s chances of signing a great offensive line class. As the 49ers went through the playoffs, only to lose to eventual Super Bowl champions Seattle Seahawks, Trojans recruits such as highly coveted Bellflower (Calif.) St John Bosco All-America prep tackle Damien Mama took notice.
“The staff did a great job of holding on to them and keeping me up to date,” Drevno said. “We lost that game in Seattle and I flew down immediately to be in the home of Damien Mama. These are good football players coming in and we’re excited to be working with them.”
Even before spring ball, Drevno had been hard at work evaluating his offensive linemen. It was decided about a month ago that starting junior offensive guard Max Tuerk would get yet another crack at center with the early departure of Marcus Martin to the 2014 NFL draft.
“Max is a smart guy, and we’re trying to put the best five guys on the field,” Drevno said. “He’s a veteran guy and he’s played a lot of snaps. We started there; we’ll mix it up and see what’s best for everybody.”
And everybody also means true freshmen Toa Lobendahn, a potential center candidate who left La Habra (Calif.) High early to enroll in time for spring practice, as did Claremont (Calif.) High tackle Jordan Austin.
“Toa comes from a football family with his dad being a coach,” Drevno said. “Coach's kids do the right things, and they been around a lot chasing balls around, so he fits in pretty well.
“I am really impressed with Toa and Jordan Austin. They all have tremendous want to and they want to be good. These guys are a very good draft class in terms of prospects.”
When asked about re-adjusting from coaching in the NFL to coaching in college, Drevno remains philosophical.
“Football is football whether you’re coaching Pop Warner, high school, college, or the pros,” Drevno said. “You roll the ball out and you execute at a high level. The patience level is the same; it’s a journey.”
Drevno’s cardinal and gold journey is just beginning. Not bad for a former USC tailback wannabe.
Pelon: He is the most likely of the early enrollees to make an immediate impact as he competes for the interior spot vacated by George Uko. Pelon has massive size with a 6-foot-5, 285-pound frame along with two years of playing experience at the junior college level. He will face a lot of competition from players like Antwaun Woods, Delvon Simmons, Kenny Bigelow and Greg Townsend Jr. (along with the possibility of J.R. Tavai) but Pelon will be given every opportunity in spring to show that he can be part of the interior rotation.
Hill: Don’t expect much from Hill this spring as he rehabs from an Achilles' heel injury suffered last year. Hill was committed to Steve Sarkisian and Washington before flipping to USC, so these coaches have long thought that Hill could fit in their plans. He’s projected as a DE who could play a stand-up OLB role.
Greene: There were a few raised eyebrows when Sarkisian offered a scholarship to Greene, who wasn’t previously on the USC radar as a commit to Boise State. Now with the recent announcement that Max Wittek would be leaving the program, Greene suddenly has the opportunity to get a lot of reps in his first spring with the Trojans. The main competition at the position will be between incumbent Cody Kessler and the talented Max Browne, but Greene will benefit from the added work that comes when only three scholarship quarterbacks are on the roster.
Lobendahn: While Pelon might be the mostly likely of the early entries to see immediate playing time, don’t rule Lobendahn out of that mix because the Trojans need a center and there are no clear-cut favorites for the role. Khaliel Rodgers enters spring as a candidate with one year of experience as a guard but Lobendahn figures to be given a shot to compete for the spot. Lobendahn is the son of a coach who was also a lineman so the genes and fundamentals are there. He has a versatile and aggressive playing style that reminds us of former USC lineman Lenny Vandermade, who is back with the program this spring as part of the staff.
Austin: There won’t be many immediate expectations for Austin this spring. He will be added in as depth with a chance to begin his development process a semester early, which is always a bonus for an incoming lineman.
Four verbal commitments highlighted the period -- which ran from Dec. 16 to Jan. 15 -- but some members of the Trojans’ class were met with uncertainty as the coaches scrambled to find additional targets. A commitment from dual-threat quarterback Jalen Greene (Gardena, Calif./Serra) was the first domino to fall, as Sarkisian nabbed his top target at a position of need, and plenty of activity followed despite the prohibition of face-to-face contact.
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For the second weekend in a row, UCLA will have an ESPN 300 prospect on campus. Last week, the Bruins hosted Alabama linebacker commit Zach Whitley Jr (Houston/North Shore). This weekend, ESPN 300 defensive end Solomon Thomas (Coppell, Texas/Coppell) will make the trip. Thomas, the No. 31 overall prospect and No. 5 defensive end, would be a huge addition for UCLA, which has done very well in Texas recently, led by assistant coach Adrian Klemm. Thomas still has a number of suitors, but UCLA has maintained a consistent presence in his recruitment -- along with Pac-12 rival Stanford -- and has a chance to make a statement this weekend.
USC's weekend intrigue
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That momentum grew exponentially Saturday night at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, where a loaded list of top-flight recruits saw USC upset Stanford in front of a crazed crowd that rushed the field in jubilance. Five-star cornerback Adoree’ Jackson (Gardena, Calif./Serra), ESPN 300 athlete John “JuJu” Smith (Long Beach, Calif./Poly) and ESPN 300 tight end Bryce Dixon (Ventura, Calif./St. Bonaventure) were among the top targets in attendance.
The list featured all but one of USC’s nine verbal commits, as longtime pledge Toa Lobendahn (La Habra, Calif./La Habra) couldn’t make the trip but watched intently from home.
To see thousands of people rush a football &.be apart of it is awesome— Malik Dorton (@theeEliteMalik) November 17, 2013
“Going into the game, I knew it was going to be a dog fight,” Lobendahn said. “I wanted the Trojans to battle no matter what and they did that. I wasn’t going to lose faith in them no matter what, but I’m so glad we got the W and so happy for Coach O and the team. I’m super mad I couldn’t go celebrate.”
Lobendahn could get the scoop from USC receiver commit Shay Fields Jr. (Bellflower, Calif./St. John Bosco), who was in the middle of the celebration.
“The locker room was really crazy,” Fields said. “Everybody was dancing and going crazy in there. The recruits were loving the intensity inside that locker room. Now I’m trying to get everybody (to join me).”
Fields had a number of recruits to choose from, as the Trojans drew the presence of local recruits whom have made pledges elsewhere, including Cal athlete commit Jaleel Wadood (Bellflower, Calif./St. John Bosco), Miami quarterback commit Brad Kaaya (West Hills, Calif./Chaminade), Cal running back commit Tre Watson (Corona, Calif./Centennial) and UCLA receiver commit Jordan Lasley (Gardena, Calif./Serra).
“It definitely gives me something to think about,” Wadood said. “It was a huge win for SC. I’m still trying to decide if I will take an official visit. My last one will be between Washington and USC.”
Kaaya, a four-star pocket passer who landed an offer from childhood favorite USC shortly after Orgeron took the helm, surprised his mother with tickets for her birthday.
“It was exciting to watch,” Kaaya said. “Funny thing is, the first college football game I ever saw was Stanford-USC at the Coliseum when USC lost. This time, it seemed like the situation switched and USC came out on top.”
For three-star offensive tackle Jordan Austin (Claremont, Calif./Claremont), the game also served as a chance to build a relationship with a future teammate.
“It was pure excitement in the locker room following the well-deserved win,” Austin said. “I hung out with Jordan Poland primarily, but we did not talk much about recruiting. Rather, it was just friend to friend.”
The Class of 2015 was also well represented, with No. 1-rated signal-caller Josh Rosen (Bellflower, Calif./St. John Bosco), No. 4 cornerback Iman Marshall (Long Beach, Calif./Poly) and No. 7 wide receiver Cordell Broadus (Diamond Bar, Calif./Diamond Bar) headlining a group that also included No. 2 outside linebacker John Houston Jr. (Gardena, Calif./Serra) and No. 12 defensive tackle Rasheem Green (Gardena, Calif./Serra).
“It was a great game,” Broadus said. “The atmosphere was very electric.”
The job Orgeron and his staff have done has not been lost on recruits. ESPN 300 defensive end Malik Dorton (Bellflower, Calif./St. John Bosco) has been open to visiting other schools while being committed to the Trojans, but that would all disappear if Orgeron were to get hired.
“Recruits want the coaches to stay on staff really bad; at least I know I do,” Dorton said. “If those guys stay, I’m definitely coming.”
Three-star outside linebacker Uchenna Nwosu (Harbor City, Calif./Narbonne), who last month became the first recruiting class member from the Los Angeles City Section, left the Coliseum with a smile on his face.
“It was great. I had a good time and I feel like I made the right choice,” Nwosu said. “After the game, we went in the locker room and it was crazy in there. All the coaches were getting turned up.”
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- As expected, USC outside linebacker commit D.J. Calhoun (El Cerrito, Calif./El Cerrito) set up his first official visit to Arizona State for the Oct. 18 weekend when the Sun Devils host Washington. The four-star prospect intends to take all five visits, though his father, Derik, said he remains committed to USC. With good friend and high school teammate Adarius Pickett now committed to UCLA, the Trojans will have some work to do.
- While some uncertainty remains with Calhoun, add three-star offensive lineman Jordan Austin (Claremont, Calif./Claremont) to the list of recruits who have not been unfazed by the fuzzy USC coaching situation. Like fellow linemen commits Toa Lobendahn (La Habra, Calif./La Habra) and Jordan Poland (La Jolla, Calif./Country Day School), Austin appears headed for Troy no matter how the 2013 season unravels. “I went to the game against Boston College. I loved the whole experience,” the 6-foot-5, 275-pound prospect said. Lobendahn, meanwhile, will be eligible to play his first game this season on Oct. 11 when La Habra travels to Fullerton (Calif.).
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The USC Trojans took the field Saturday for the opening day of fall camp practices.
“It was nice to get out here and have organized practices,” said quarterback Cody Kessler. “The summer workouts are great and all, but it’s good to finally be able to be out here with the whole team and the coaches. I thought we had a really good focus today, which was good to see.”
It was a no-pads practice for the Trojans, who will not put on full pads until practice No. 6, which will take place Thursday in a scrimmage in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
“It will be a very physical camp once pads get put on,” said coach Lane Kiffin.
There will be a lot of attention paid to the quarterbacks, and Kiffin praised both Kessler and Max Wittek for their work Saturday. Kiffin said there is a long way to go before a starter is named.
Among the primary things Kiffin will be looking for is to see who manages the game better and who takes care of the football. For what it’s worth, Kessler took the first-team reps in the final team drill of the day.
Wittek made an early completion deep to Victor Blackwell, and Kessler hit Nelson Agholor over the middle on a deep ball and then later hooked up with Marqise Lee on a nice reception. Another receiver who had a good first day was freshman Darreus Rogers, who caught almost everything thrown his way.
On the defensive side of the ball, safety Gerald Bowman stood out as a playmaker as he had a one-handed interception and broke up a pass.
Running back rotation
“Tre [Madden] looked great and he got a lot of work,” Kiffin said. “Justin [Davis] looked better than he did at the end of last spring. Ty [Isaac] had one fumble, but other than that he looked good. There’s a lot of talent in that group.”
Buck Allen ran well in a team drill and looked sharp.
Abe Markowitz was on the field taking reps as a reserve center. Kiffin confirmed that Markowitz has received a sixth year of eligibility from the NCAA and has returned to the team as a walk-on. Markowitz gives the Trojans an additional versatile player on the line, as he can also play either guard spot.
Special teams in action
There was a lot of special teams work early in the practice with Andre Heidari attempting several field goals. There were also kickoff return and punt return drills, with the return men alternating among a group of Marqise Lee, Nelson Agholor, D.J. Morgan, Victor Blackwell and Anthony Brown.
More highlight plays
Jabari Ruffin came on a pass rush and leaped high in the air to knock down a Max Browne pass attempt. ... J.R. Tavai was on a blitz and absolutely bowled over Justin Davis trying to make a block in the backfield. ... There were a couple nice plays by walk-ons: Tailback Taylor Ross had a long run and wide receiver Robby Kolanz leaped between two defenders to make a nice grab.
Recruits in attendance
DL Michael Wyche (Monterey Park, Calif./East Los Angeles College), LB D.J. Calhoun (El Cerrito, Calif./El Cerrito), OL Jordan Austin (Claremont, Calif./Claremont) and class of 2016 WR Brandon Burton (Gardena, Calif./Serra).
“I’m at 198 pounds right now; I was at 208 last year. It’s easier to move around at this weight, but I was cramping up a little today because I haven’t bent this much in a long time. I like that this defensive scheme holds the secondary accountable because everybody in the back end is in man-to-man coverage. In high school, when I played free safety I was just roaming around, relying on my talent. Now I understand how to read offenses, I know my keys and how to read the quarterback.” – safety Dion Bailey
“I worked on my decision-making the most in the offseason. Making the right decision is what will win games. The Sun Bowl game gives me the drive to show something different; I’m very much looking forward to that. As far as the quarterback competition, we all know the reality of the situation. Someone will be named the starter and we all know that. We all spend so much time together and we’re friends, but we don’t talk about who will win the job. (Wittek was asked if he would consider transferring if he didn’t win the job) I will cross that bridge if it comes to that.” – quarterback Max Wittek
“I worked a lot this offseason on making sure I give my receivers a chance to make plays, to not overthrow them. We’ve got the kind of receivers that, if you give them a chance, they will do a lot of good things. It comes down to trust as a quarterback, trust in your guys to go get the ball. I also worked on being a field general, being a leader. It’s things like being the first guy in the meeting room, being there in the mornings when guys want to throw, just doing the right thing by example.” – quarterback Cody Kessler