Much attention was given to the quarterback battle between Cody Kessler and Max Browne, one that was, for all intents and purposes, decided well before spring camp even began. Despite new head coach Steve Sarkisian's claims that this position duel was anyone's game, we knew that Kessler's experience would trump however impressive Browne's arm strength is.
But it doesn't really matter how much Kessler has improved as a quarterback or how much he has grown into his role as a starter if his offensive line can't protect him.
Sark has made it clear that giving the O-line a facelift is high on the to-do list in Troy, and as we transition into the fall, it needs to be priority No. 1. Through the spring, we saw a lot of progression from young guys like Khaliel Rodgers and Zach Banner, as well as early enrollees Toa Lobendahn and Jordan Austin. We also were reassured of the abilities from veterans like Max Tuerk and Chad Wheeler.
Aundrey Walker, Jordan Simmons and Nico Falah missed all of the spring due to injury, so depth concerns severely limited just how much Sark and offensive line coach Tim Drevno could push for improvement. It wasn't always pretty, but it looked as if the Wheeler-Lobendahn-Tuerk-Rodgers-Banner rotation could be promising.
But according to Sark, musical linemen will still be the name of the game come the fall.
Sounds like the jury is still out with Sarkisian on whether or not Max Tuerk will play center for #USC in the fall.— Lindsey Thiry (@LindseyThiry) May 1, 2014
The fact that Sark isn't set on Tuerk as center is a bit troubling because he is the most experienced veteran on the O-line, and his transition has gone swimmingly. Not only that, but Kessler has openly discussed with Steve Bisheff of ESPN how much he likes having Tuerk (who is also Kessler's roommate) at center:
I think Max [Tuerk] is doing a great job so far. He is feeling a lot more relaxed out there. The nice thing about us rooming together is that we can get in extra work. This past Sunday, Max, Nelson [Agholor] and I came out here and worked for an hour and a half. Max was snapping the ball to me and Nelson ran routes. It’s nice to be able to do that whenever you want.
Furthermore, Tuerk evaluated his own development at the position and spoke favorably about his new responsibilities:
I love it. I think I’ve adjusted and I feel really good at center. The more reps I get, the more comfortable I feel. So far, I’ve been enjoying it a lot. I especially like calling out the blocking schemes before every play. The way it works is, Cody gets the call from the sideline, he repeats it to me, then I try to read the linebackers and the defensive linemen and make my call.
With chemistry swirling between Tuerk and Kessler, what sense does it make to disrupt that in the fall?
It's not like the Trojans will be particularly short on talent at that time. As previously mentioned, Walker, Simmons, and Falah will return from injury. Then the highly touted signees in Damien Mama, Viane Talamaivao and Chris Brown will join the ranks, adding depth across the board.
In a teleconference earlier in May, Sark spoke about his plans for Mama and Talamaivao, the two newcomers who stand to be the biggest assets to the O-line:
With Steve Sarkisian saying Damien Mama/Viane Talamaivao are interior linemen, tackle depth suddenly looks lighter for #USC— InsideUSC (@InsideUSC) May 1, 2014
It appears Rodgers and Lobendahn have the respective starting spots at right and left guard locked up, but Mama and Talamaivao will certainly provide spirited competition. Both are considered to be game ready, so however it ultimately shakes out, USC will have quality guards in the rotation.
But Walker is also expected to line up at an interior spot next fall, so there won't be a whole lot of depth at right tackle behind (or potentially in front of) Banner.
Sark's indecision about Tuerk at center could be that he would rather play Tuerk at right tackle—where he lined up against Oregon State last season while Kevin Graf was out—instead of the inexperienced Banner.
Moving Tuerk away from center for that reason is still questionable, though, as Banner has excelled throughout the spring and made a statement about how ready he is to contribute to the team.
Having a weak O-line has been USC's M.O. for the past few seasons, and that's not going to fly anymore if Sark plans to return the Trojans to greatness by way of his new uptempo offense. And the head coach should already be well versed in how disastrously things can go when fielding with a shaky O-line, as he had to deal with it himself at Washington in 2012.
To avoid getting off to a similar rough start at USC, it's important that Sark correctly places his experienced linemen.
“I do know that Max Tuerk is a tremendous football player,” Sarkisian said to Johnny Curren of ESPN. “He’s played a lot of football. He’s going to play for us this fall. He went through the entire spring as our center. We’ll obviously take a good, hard look at that early in training camp, along with a couple other guys.“
It's still a bit too early to be really concerned, but shuffling Tuerk's position again could be a bad call for the Trojans next season. Sark still has a few months to figure out how he wants things to look and really start cementing the starters in August.