The issue had been there since Zach Banner stepped foot on the USC campus in 2012.
Banner was an All-American offensive line recruit with tremendous potential. But at 6-foot-9, there was always a question if he was too tall to get the effective knee bend required for leverage against an opponent. A quick glance around the rosters of NFL and college teams show that there simply aren’t many offensive tackles that tall, and during the early part of his career as a Trojan, it was unclear how Banner would fare.
After redshirting during his freshman season, Banner began the 2013 season still struggling with the transition. There would be plays when he showed good athleticism and bend and some plays when he didn't, and it was clear the issue wasn’t going away.
Then came a diagnosis of a hip condition last fall, and then surgeries on both hips, along with a dedicated rehab period that has allowed him to show up as a “new man” for the 2014 spring drills, which happen to feature a new staff and a fresh start for the USC players. All that is adding to a brighter outlook for Banner.
“This is all new to me,” Banner said. “I mean that. I’m a new person. I’ve never been able to bend like this before, never been able to get in this kind of stance. I have no idea what’s going on with my body right now. These are new hips that I’ve never had in my life. It’s crazy but I love it.”
Through the first two weeks of spring practice, Banner had primarily played left tackle with the second unit, but in the last two practices he has also played right tackle, and received extended reps with the first unit. It’s too early to know where things stand right now in terms of potential playing time, but that’s not the big picture, for either Banner or his coach. At this point, it’s more important to see him on the field, building up his strength and his confidence.
“I’ve been pleasantly impressed with Zach,” USC coach Steve Sarkisian said. “I didn’t come in with expectations of anybody. I don’t even know if Zach had any expectations of what he was going to be capable of doing this spring. But I think he got in there and said, ‘Wait, I can do this,’ and he got in a little bit more and it felt good.
“I think the issue of the knee bend and pad level is something you’ll constantly hear with him. When you’re 6-foot-9 and coming off hip surgeries, that can be the challenge. But he’s responded to it and I think his stance has gotten better, which leads to coming off the football, continuing to stay low and getting that pad level right. He’s working on it. Everybody has their own unique challenges and that will forever be one for Zach, when you’re 6-foot-9.”
For Banner, he is appreciative to be in this position, to have a longtime problem taken care of to the point where he can become the player he wants to be.
“If I had this body coming out of high school, it would have been a different story, but it wasn’t,” Banner said. “It wasn’t flexibility issues, it was bone growth. I had to get surgery. It was there my whole life and I didn’t even know about it. FAI: That’s the name of the hip impediment. We got a great doctor, Dr. Jason Snibbe, one of the best hip doctors on the west coast and Pat Haden brought him in to work on me. We fixed it. I’m happy. I’m loving life right now.”
Things aren’t exactly at full speed yet for Banner, however. As positive as the start has been to spring, he knows there is still plenty of work to be done.
“Healing-wise I’m at 100 percent, but strength-wise I’m probably at 60 percent,” Banner said. “I’m feeling no pain in my hips, but I have to build the strength. I’m not able to go as hard as I want to yet because I’m just not strong enough, but that’s up to me to get there; I have to earn that. It’s great that we have new coaches and a new opportunity and that I’m in a position to take advantage of it. The coaches are throwing me in the fire, which I love, but they aren’t doing it stupidly. Now I just have to work my ass off, get my strength up and get back on the field.”
Sarkisian says he's excited about Banner's potential.
“He is a big man who is hard to run around, 6-foot-whatever he is, 350 some odd pounds," Sarkisian said. "A lot of his future will center around his confidence continuing to grow. He’s a very bright guy. He’s physically gifted enough; it’s just a matter of getting him knowing that he is capable of doing it. I think he’s been showing that, especially in the last couple days.”