There are position battles galore across the offensive line, and the most important one is that at center. Marcus Martin's decision to leave USC early has rendered the spot glaringly vacant, and Tim Drevno's first job as the new offensive line coach is to identify the best candidate for the job and get to work molding him into a leader on the line.
Spring practices kicked off on Tuesday, and it appears Drevno and Steve Sarkisian are wasting no time in handling this matter.
According to the Los Angeles Daily News' Scott Wolf:
Max Tuerk was No.1 center at practice #USC— InsideUSC (@InsideUSC) March 12, 2014
Tuerk has previously started for the Trojans as a right tackle and a guard, so this would be his third starting gig in his career. The junior is one of USC's most versatile, athletic linemen, so it's no surprise the coaches made the choice to slide him to center.
Tuerk told Gary Klein of the Los Angeles Times that Lane Kiffin and his staff tried him out at center last season, but the length of his arms prevented him from consistently getting good snaps off to the quarterbacks. In Sark's new offense, the fast-paced, no-huddle scheme operates almost exclusively out of the shotgun, which means Tuerk's arm length won't be a hindrance anymore.
All that said, Klein also went on to explain that Tuerk at center isn't set in stone:
Sarkisian said Tuerk could play three positions and that the offensive line would evolve.
“It is comforting to know that you have an experienced player at center when you’re operating at this pace,” Sarkisian said.
Because he's proven to be such a fluid presence on the O-line, Tuerk might be needed somewhere else.
The right tackle position is also vacant this spring, thanks to the graduation of former starter Kevin Graf. Furthermore, Jordan Simmons, Aundrey Walker and Zach Banner will all miss the spring while they nurse injuries. Tuerk seems to be a shoo-in for that job, too.
Injuries have Drevno's hands tied for the time being, and when more players get back into the rotation, we could end up seeing Tuerk's skill set utilized somewhere else on the O-line. If that does happen, there is a contingency plan already in place.
A heralded recruit and early enrollee, Toa Lobendahn got reps with the second team in the opening days of spring practice, according to Fox Sports West's Rahshaun Haylock. Lobendahn was expected to contribute right away at USC, and so far he is delivering on his highly vaulted status.
Similar to Tuerk, Lobendahn was such an important get for USC because he can play anywhere on the line, and excel. In looking at his tape from last summer, Lobendahn lined up at tackle, guard and center, and held his own against his defensive competition.
But is he ready to contend with the best competition that college has to offer?
Because of his inexperience, we might not see Lobendahn dubbed a starter yet. That said, don't count him out, either.
Lastly, there's Khaliel Rodgers, the redshirt freshman who has spent a year at USC impressing on the practice field. Last season he lined up as a guard and so far, he's stayed there this spring. But if push comes to shove, his stout frame and strong blocking skills could see him succeed at center.
For now, USC has been operating with an O-line that looks like this:
USC’s first-team O-line, from L-R today, was Chad Wheeler, Giovanni Di Poalo, Max Tuerk, Khaliel Rodgers, Nathan Guertler— Rich Hammond (@RegisterUSC) March 12, 2014
As previously stated, healthy players getting back into the rotation will shake up that bunch, but it's important that if nothing else, Sark and Drevno figure out who the center will be as soon as possible. The center and the success of the running game go hand in hand, and the former just hasn't been up to par in the days since Kris O'Dowd and Khaled Holmes commanded that position.
Ideally, the coaches can hammer that out in the coming weeks, and then Drevno can spend the latter half of spring and the entire summer grooming that athlete into the dominant center that the Trojans need.