- Garry Paskwietz, Publisher, WeAreSC.com
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LOS ANGELES -- Kevin Graf is ready for a big season.
The junior right tackle for the Trojans is one of four returning starters on an offensive line that is expected to be one of the best in the nation. That line will be blocking for a quarterback who is considered a Heisman Trophy favorite on a team ranked No. 1 in the preseason by both ESPN and the AP poll.
For those who have watched fall camp practices, it's clear that Graf is prepared for those opportunities, as he has shown up to camp in the best physical shape of his career.
Graf stands 6-foot-6 and weighs 303 pounds, up approximately 20 pounds from his 2011 playing weight. His body fat is down 3 percent, and his time of 5.03 seconds in the 40-yard dash was one of the best on the line.
"This was really the first offseason since I've been here that I've been able to work out the whole time," Graf said. "I've never really had that before due to injuries. It was the hardest I've ever worked."
His offensive line coach, James Cregg, says the increased strength combined with the experience of playing last season as a starter has increased Graf's confidence this fall.
"It's what you see sometimes with a player as he grows and begins to see things totally different," Cregg said. "Kevin went through a whole season as a starter so he's comfortable with what he's doing out there. He showed a tremendous work ethic in his offseason training with Coach [Aaron] Ausmus, so he's in fantastic shape. That combination of experience and added strength brings confidence."
Graf is quick to give credit to Ausmus -- USC's strength and conditioning coach -- for the work they put in over the offseason, and he agrees with Cregg that the results can be seen on the field.
"I believe what Coach Cregg said is true," Graf said. "It shows on film. I watch film and say, 'Wow, I wasn't doing that before.' "
Ausmus said the most important thing Graf did was show patience early in his career when injuries kept him from training year-round and reaching his full physical potential.
"It was a slow development for Kevin to really have things come together," Ausmus said. "Some guys are like that for various reasons. He kept waiting for it to really show and he just stayed true to his work ethic the whole time. I'm happy for him to see the fruits of his labor like this. It's nice to see for a guy who worked so hard -- it puts a smile on my face."
During the offseason Graf also took up yoga to work on his flexibility -- his favorite pose is the child's pose -- and spent time training near his hometown with NFL players such as Clay Matthews, Casey Matthews, Marc Tyler and Jimmy Clausen. Those training sessions allowed Graf to solicit honest advice from people he knows and who have advanced their game to the highest level.
"Working with those guys kind of helped me grow up," Graf said. "I talked to them about what I was doing right and what I was doing wrong. They said I was playing too tense, so I worked on that. They said my hands needed work. I did some pass sets and they said I was good there. It was good to talk with guys who play defense in the NFL to get some advice on what I need to do."
USC fans can look forward to seeing Graf team with right guard John Martinez this season to form a solid duo on the right side of the line. The two have a unique chemistry that comes with years of shared experience.
"We came in together freshman year and we were the only offensive linemen recruited that year," Martinez said. "We've been together through all the jitters that young guys go through, the sanctions, starting together for the first time. When I'm lining up next to someone else it just doesn't click as well. We hang out off the field, too. That's my boy."
Graf -- who will graduate this fall and begin a masters program in communication management in the spring -- agrees about the comfort level with Martinez.
"I know how to communicate with John," Graf said. "We mesh really well."
The experience factor with the Graf-Martinez combo has been mentioned many times by USC head coach Lane Kiffin as one of the reasons Graf is returning as a starter on the right side. Graf began spring ball at left tackle and was eager for a chance to compete for that open job. After one week, Kiffin moved Graf back to right tackle and inserted Aundrey Walker at left tackle, where both have stayed.
Cregg likes what he sees from his returning right tackle so far in fall camp.
"Kevin's overall technique is strong," Cregg said. "His cutting and drive blocking are good and his pass pro has gotten a lot better. I'm looking forward to seeing what he and John can do together this year. On the O-line you have to trust each other, and Kevin and John have that. They've got a special relationship. I expect good things from them."