Offseason storylines: Offensive line

With a new position coach added to the fold, not to mention the loss of the unit’s veteran leader at center, there was an aura of change and opportunity surrounding the USC offensive line this spring that was clearly evident during the 15 practices. With that atmosphere serving as the backdrop, here are some of the biggest storylines of the offseason for a group looking to up their level of play in 2013.

New influence at the top

While the USC offensive line did allow a conference-best 17 total sacks in 2012, they also struggled against the more physical defensive fronts that they faced – most notably Stanford and Notre Dame. With that in mind, it’s obvious that in order for the Trojans to get back to their winning ways next season, they have to establish a tougher brand of play up front on offense. In an effort to do just that, Kiffin brought in highly regarded offensive line guru Mike Summers to team with James Cregg, the coach of the position group for the past three seasons. And with the unit showing flashes of improved play, with a nasty demeanor that wasn’t always there last fall, the addition of Summers – who has 32 years of experience – appears to have paid off. Still, as a whole, the Trojans offensive line isn’t where it needs to be just yet, because while they did make strides, they also had their issues on occasion when going up against the new-look USC defense. They still have much to prove, but if they’re able to take that next step under the watchful eyes of Summers and Cregg this offseason, there’s reason to believe that the Trojans will be in good shape here in the fall.

Center of it all

With the departure of center Khaled Holmes — a three-year starter and anchor of the offensive line – the search for his replacement became one of the major priorities of the spring. To everyone’s surprise, getting the first crack at the spot was Max Tuerk, who was coming off a stellar freshman campaign spent primarily at left tackle. And while the Santa Margarita (Calif.) graduate played solidly at the new position for the most part, there were more than a few instances of fumbled center-quarterback exchanges, causing the coaches to look elsewhere for an alternate option. Fortunately, they did find a very good one in junior Marcus Martin. A standout performer for the last two seasons as the starting left guard, he actually spent the majority of the bowl game workouts at center in December, giving him valuable experience at the position that certainly came in handy this spring. Looking comfortable and in control, he gained the confidence of everyone around him, including Kiffin. On the verge of what could be a very big season, Martin’s firm grasp of the position also allowed Tuerk to move over to left guard, the position he started at in the Sun Bowl, and where he’ll likely play in the fall. Cyrus Hobbi figures to be the primary backup to Martin.

Walker ready to make a statement at LT?

Another position of interest heading into the spring was the always-crucial left tackle spot, manned by a combination of Aundrey Walker and Tuerk in 2012. But with Tuerk’s move to center, and eventually left guard, this spot was all Walker’s for the taking this spring. Walker, whose career has been marked by its ups and downs so far, certainly appeared to play at a higher level than he has before, even holding off a push by redshirt freshman Chad Wheeler, who eventually went down with a PCL injury in his knee. Still, Walker continued to have his battles with consistency and questions remain. Is Walker the answer at left tackle? Can he provide the USC offense with a sturdy presence at the position that it will desperately need? Might he better be suited to play at guard – a move that was brought up by the coaches, but never acted upon – with Tuerk lining back over at tackle? For Walker, whose raw physical skills are undeniable, it’s how he continues to develop this offseason that will play a vital part in determining those answers.

Unexpected position battle

When the post-spring depth chart was released back in April, the most surprising bit of information revealed was that Kevin Graf – a tried and tested senior with two years of starting experience – was listed as sharing the top spot at right tackle with Wheeler, with the signature “OR” designation separating their names. It was a bit of a stunner on several levels. One, Graf had appeared to assert himself over the last two years as a dependable performer with a wealth of experience. Two, Wheeler had just been moved over to left tackle before the spring to challenge Walker. Instead, now it’s Graf that Wheeler will push this offseason on the right side. Having shown tremendous potential in the limited time that he took part in spring drills, Wheeler could make things interesting, but with a veteran with 25 starts to his credit standing in front of him, he certainly has an uphill battle on his hands. In either case, it would appear that the coaching staff has sent a message to Graf, and it will be interesting to see how he responds.