Offensive line will feature veteran players, new coach

There is no doubt that Cody Kessler will be a focal point for the Trojans this season, and with him will be arguably one of the strongest offensive lines in the country. The line will return not only every starter from last season, but also their most valuable reserves.

The centerpiece of such a strong group also doubles as the actual center in senior standout Max Tuerk. All eyes will be on Tuerk as the season kicks off and he prepares to prove his readiness for the NFL.

The 6-foot-6 center has been placed on the watch list for the Lombardi Trophy, college football’s annual award for the best interior player. In addition to this award, Tuerk is also on the watch list for two others: the Rimington Trophy for top center and the Outland Trophy for top lineman.

Tuerk will be one of the Trojans’ most versatile players, with the ability to play any position on the line. The four-year starter played tackle and guard before eventually being moved to center last season, where he earned All-Pac-12 first-team honors.

“I think Max is the best center in the country,” head coach Steve Sarkisian said.

To complement Tuerk will be two first-team All-American freshmen returning as sophomores in Toa Lobendahn and Viane Talamaivao. Lobendahn played the first eight games of the 2014 season at left guard before transitioning to left tackle for the remainder of an injury-plagued season. Talamaivao started in the Trojans’ final 11 games as the right guard.

Both starting tackles will return for USC in juniors Chad Wheeler on the left side and Zach Banner on the right. Wheeler, who missed the final five games of the 2014 season with a knee injury, has been a two-year starter for the Trojans.

Sophomore guard Damien Mama will be returning for USC this season with four starts under his belt. He started the first two games at right guard, and ended the season by starting the last two games at left guard.

Another returner for the Trojans is sophomore Khaliel Rodgers. Rodgers is a center but versatile enough to play other positions along the line, as he demonstrated in three late season starts at left guard.

Last season, the team suffered from an injury-plagued line, but with every player expecting a full recovery, the offensive line should be able to reach its full potential.

“We are fortunate that all of our starters are back this year, as well as some players returning from injuries and some really good newcomers,” Sarkisian said.

Last year’s rough season for the Trojans could turn the team into one of the deepest and most versatile sets of offensive linemen in the country.

“I love our line’s overall athleticism, toughness and attitude, plus its versatility and depth,” Sarkisian said.

The line will be working under new offensive line coach Bob Connelly, who has 20 years of coaching experience.

“You have to be able to run the football, protect the quarterback and I think we can do that,” Sarkisian said.

Connelly’s most recent coaching job was in 2014 at Oklahoma State, but Connelly has also coached the offensive line at Arizona State, Washington State, UTEP and Alabama.

Connelly is familiar with Pac-12 football and has been able to improve the running game at each of his previous schools, and USC should be no exception.