For all of his detractors who grumble about his predictable, cautious play-calling, no one can accuse USC head coach Lane Kiffin of not thinking outside the box in other ways. Of course, a great deal of that thinking has been controversial and not exactly aboveboard.
News broke just last week that NCAA will institute, for all intents and purposes, a “Kiffin Rule” requiring coaches to tell referees when they switch a player’s number so that the officials can announce it over the public address system. This move was precipitated by Kiffin’s now-infamous decision to have redshirt freshman quarterback Cody Kessler don senior punter Kyle Negrete’s No. 35 jersey while sneaking for an unsuccessful two-point conversion against Colorado.
But shenanigans aside, Kiffin has also exercised creativity with his player personnel, especially given the lack of roster depth brought about by the sanctions. Once Kiffin identifies a talented player on his team buried on the depth chart at one position, he has time and time again moved the player to compete at another position.
Even with this in mind, perhaps the biggest surprise of spring football thus far is Kiffin’s decision to move freshman offensive lineman Max Tuerk to center. Kiffin has often praised Tuerk’s intelligence and foresees the 6-foot-6 behemoth adapting seamlessly to his new role, which will also require him to identify blitz packages and call out blocking assignments.
Kiffin sports a mostly successful record on these roster moves to date with only a couple of exceptions, so it’s difficult to second-guess him too much.
In fact, some of his moves later became transformative, including when he converted Dion Bailey into an All-Pac-12 linebacker after recruiting him as a safety.
Similarly, former USC captain Rhett Ellison credits his current NFL success as a special teamer to his change from tight end to fullback in his senior season. His increased versatility convinced the Minnesota Vikings to take him in the 2012 NFL draft’s fourth round — much earlier than projected entering the year.
His move also freed up more playing time for the talented tight end duo of Xavier Grimble and Randall Telfer.
Yet not all of Kiffin’s roster tinkering has panned out. Most notably, 6-foot-3, 240-pound junior defensive end Devon Kennard lined up at middle linebacker in 2010 and looked completely out of his element as the quarterback of the defense.
In former defensive coach Monte Kiffin’s Tampa-2 defensive scheme, the middle linebacker needed to drop back constantly to defend the soft underbelly of the system: short passes over the middle. Of course, such a responsibility sapped Kennard of his explosive pass rushing, which will one day earn him a healthy NFL paycheck.
Unfortunately for USC, I believe Tuerk’s switch to center will come to resemble the Kennard misadventure at linebacker more than Bailey and Ellison’s successful moves — not because Tuerk can’t handle the position, but because USC needs him more at offensive tackle.
Three practices in, the early returns on Tuerk’s switch are decidedly mixed, as there have been numerous fumbled exchanges between the quarterback and center. But such mistakes will surely diminish with experience. More worrisome is the fact that Tuerk is not the ideal height for the position. If redshirt freshman quarterback Cody Kessler, who is generally listed as 6-foot-1 on USC’s official roster, ultimately wins the starting quarterback nod, his field vision will be impaired by the towering Tuerk.
The greatest concern, however, is that Tuerk, a 2012 All Pac-12 honorable mention selection despite only starting five games as a freshman, represents USC’s best option at the all-important left tackle position. Tuerk’s athleticism is wasted at center. The move doesn’t make much sense for a player who doubled as a tight end in spurts this season, especially given the alternatives present.
Sophomore offensive tackle Aundrey Walker struggled last season to maintain his focus and tenacity throughout all four quarters, at times flashing the nastiness of former Trojan Matt Kalil on a pancake block and at other times getting beaten by a speed rush and then subsequently giving up and not even attempting to recover. By moving Walker’s principal competition for the starting left tackle spot, Kiffin fails to challenge the Cleveland native to maximize his potential.
Upon breaking in a new quarterback this season, it’s critical that USC improves its offensive line play. Last season, with a savvy and elusive fourth-year starting quarterback, the Trojans still suffered 17 sacks. If the offensive line play doesn’t improve and if Kiffin doesn’t put his linemen in the best position possible to succeed, it won’t matter who wins the starting quarterback job.
To succeed at any level, the quarterback needs to feel comfortable dropping back in the pocket. Whoever winds up taking over the reins of the offense will need maximum effort from Walker and trust that he will protect his blind side. If this doesn’t come to fruition, then the decision to move Tuerk to center will prove costly.
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