When the Trojans hit the field on Tuesday to take part in the first spring practice session of the Steve Sarkisian era, competition will be the name of the game, as several players will vie for a host of spots that have been declared up for grabs by the new head coach.
And while much of the attention will naturally be directed at quarterback, where the incumbent Cody Kessler and rising second-year freshman Max Browne are slated to duke it out for the No. 1 role, it’s the fight up front -- for the starting center job left vacant by Marcus Martin’s early departure to the NFL -- that just might be the most crucial position battle of all.
After all, as everyone found out in 2012, when Khaled Holmes went down with an injury against Syracuse -- leaving the Trojans with an inexperienced Cyrus Hobbi to struggle in a loss to Stanford -- the fact of the matter is without a dependable performer at center to anchor down the line, the offense more often than not is going to have a difficult time moving the ball down field, no matter who else is in the lineup.
As such, one of the top priorities for new offensive line coach Tim Drevno this spring will be to unearth and groom USC’s next starting center.
Of course, filling the shoes of Martin – a 2013 All-Pac-12 first-team selection – won’t be easy, but the Trojans do have several promising candidates.
One player who will not be among those players, however, is Hobbi. It was recently revealed that the Scottsdale (Ariz.) Saguaro graduate is no longer a part of the team.
Tuerk, a junior, is the Trojans' most accomplished and versatile returning offensive lineman. Having started games at guard and tackle during his career, while also taking snaps at center last spring, he has the unique ability to slide in anywhere along the line. The big question with Tuerk, though, is where does USC need him most? With the graduation of Kevin Graf, on top of Jordan Simmons likely being relegated to the sideline this spring as he recovers from a knee injury and Zach Banner’s potentially limited status because of fall hip surgery, Tuerk looks to be a natural fit at right tackle. He lined up there as a starter against Oregon State last season. Still, if no one else steps up at center, he just might be the safest option there.
Rodgers, who arrived at USC as a member of the Trojans’ 2013 recruiting class from Elkton (Md.) Eastern Christian Academy, spent his first season on campus learning the tricks of the trade as a member of the scout team. Generating a fair amount of buzz for his performance on the practice field while lining up primarily at guard, he’s a stout and powerfully built blocker who plays with a mean streak, and he would appear to possess all of the attributes needed to succeed at center. Still, no one will know for sure until he’s thrown into the fire this spring.
Lobendahn just arrived at USC this past January as an early entrant after a fantastic senior season at La Habra (Calif.). At 6-foot-3 and 290 pounds, he’s similar to Tuerk in that he has the ability to play just about anywhere along the line. At The Opening last summer, he took reps at tackle, guard and center, shining at all three spots while going up against the nation’s top high school defensive line talent. Possessing an exceptional work ethic to go along with a strong all-around skill set, there is certainly much to be excited about in Lobendahn. But as a green rookie just a few months removed from high school, is it too much to ask from him to step in and immediately contribute? Will he be able to meet the physical and mental demands of lining up at a position that holds so much responsibility right off the bat? Everyone will soon find out.
One more possible, although perhaps somewhat unlikely, candidate could be Giovanni Di Poalo. A fifth-year senior who has yet to make a real splash as a Trojan, he was listed as a backup center as a freshman, and again in 2012, but he seems to have settled in more at guard.
Viane Talamaivao is a highly touted member of USC’s recent recruiting haul who will arrive this summer, and he also could enter the discussion at center in addition to guard, but not until fall camp.
In either case, with the field of contenders who are already in the mix, there’s reason to believe that the battle for the starting center job just might be the real position battle to watch this spring. And with so much hinging on the potential outcome, it’s a competition that can’t begin soon enough.