Closing out signing day at No. 14 in Recruiting Nation’s 2014 class rankings, new USC coach Steve Sarkisian and his staff did a remarkable job of not only grabbing the best players they could but of addressing their needs. Loading up on top-notch athletes such as John “Juju” Smith, Adoree’ Jackson and Rahshead Johnson, for example, the Trojans coaches solved depth issues at wide receiver and in the defensive backfield, while also adding some elite talent.
And while those big-play skill-position prospects garnered much of the attention, USC just might have made its biggest splash along the offensive line.
Sarkisian & Co. reeled in arguably the most highly acclaimed collection of offensive linemen in one recruiting cycle at USC since Pete Carroll’s 2008 class that included Khaled Holmes, Matt Kalil and Tyron Smith – all of whom currently play in the NFL.
Included in this year’s bumper crop are Jordan Austin (Claremont, Calif./Claremont), as well as ESPN 300 members Chris Brown (Los Angeles/Loyola), Toa Lobendahn (La Habra, Calif./La Habra), Damien Mama (Bellflower, Calif./St. John Bosco) and Viane Talamaivao (Corona, Calif./Centennial).
“To sign five offensive linemen, some of whom will have opportunities to contribute early on, I think is big,” Sarkisian said at his signing day news conference. “It’s a great group, and a group that was much needed.”
“Much needed” is right. The Trojans not only lost the leader of last season’s offensive line in center Marcus Martin, but also three-year starting right tackle Kevin Graf, as well as important contributorsJohn Martinez and Abe Markowitz. As such, it stands to reason that the newcomers are going to receive every opportunity imaginable to make an instant impact as recently hired offensive line coach Tim Drevno looks to return this group’s level of play to the days of yore.
After all, that smashmouth, take-no-prisoners mindset and standard of production that existed during USC’s magical runs under John McKay, John Robinson and Pete Carroll is something that was noticeably lacking during the past four seasons under Lane Kiffin, at least on a consistent basis.
But there’s reason to believe that with this class -- on top of Sarkisian’s commitment to maintaining an aggressive ground game as an integral part of his fast-paced offense and the hiring of a position coach in Drevno, who has had experience coaching physical offensive lines at Stanford and with the San Francisco 49ers -- that the foundation is there for a successful future.
Each member of the new haul brings something unique. Austin, a mid-year enrollee, is a fantastic 6-foot-5, 275-pound athlete with the frame to pile on more weight, making him a promising tackle prospect for down the road. Brown is an attacking blocker with outstanding technique who can play guard or tackle. Mama is a 370-pound mauler who projects at guard. Talamaivao, who can play guard (and, according to Sarkisian, possibly center) is another player who is noted for his physicality, as well as a nasty streak when he hits the field. And then there’s Lobendahn. Another early entrant, he’s capable of lining up at center, guard or tackle, making him the most versatile of the bunch.
Of the five, Mama, Talamaivao and Lobendahn – who will participate in spring practice – appear most poised to make their presence felt immediately, either as potential starters or key backups.
Significant veterans such as guard/tackle Max Tuerk, tackle Chad Wheeler and guard Aundrey Walker are returning, on top of a slew of reserves such as Jordan Simmons, Zach Banner, Khaliel Rodgers and Nico Falah. So it certainly looks like the Trojans have a deep and talented offensive line unit to pave the way up front next season.
Still, questions abound when discussing this group. Sarkisian has said that every member on the team currently out with an injury will return in time for fall camp, including Walker (ankle), Simmons (knee) and Banner (hip). If any of those players miss the spring and a portion of the summer workouts, however, what kind of shape will they be in when the season rolls around? Will Walker be ready to step into a starting role at right guard again? Can Simmons, who showed tremendous ability in practice, pick up where he left off?
What about the now-vacant center and right tackle positions? Who nails down those spots? And who will step in to assume a leadership role?
The good news is that it’s only February, giving the USC coaches plenty of time to figure out the answers to all of those questions and more.
One thing, though, is already certain. With Austin, Brown, Lobendahn, Mama and Talamaivao now a part of the future equation, the offensive line is in a much better place today, both in regard to the 2014 season and in the long term, than it was just a couple of weeks ago.