PULLMAN – Zach Banner may be just a redshirt sophomore and a first-year starter, but on the USC offensive line he’s what passes for a veteran.
The graduate of Lakes High – just outside Tacoma – is the starting right tackle for the Trojans, and at 6-foot-9, 350 pounds he’s the giant on a unit that could start three freshmen against Washington State on Saturday.
Banner says he’s ready for the challenge of leading after time spent in the incubator watching and waiting.
“A lot of guys will just sit back and let the years go by and start kicking it in while they’re playing,” Banner said “By having all that experience in reading defensive fronts and calling out plays and learning formations and all that stuff, it gave me the mindset of a three-year starter.”
He’s been a key part of an offensive line that has been better than expected this season, allowing a respectable 2.25 sacks per game. Only eight teams in the country allow fewer than the 7.75 tackles for loss the Trojans give up per game.
Injuries have taken their toll, however. Starting left tackle Chad Wheeler is down for the season after tearing his ACL in last week’s loss at Utah and it sounds like true freshman Toa Lobendahn will replace him.
Fellow true freshman Damien Mama saw reps at Lobendahn’s left guard spot, but suffered his own injury and has been replaced by redshirt freshman Khaliel Rodgers. The starting right guard, Viane Talamaivao, is also a freshman.
But don’t spare an ounce of sympathy on the Trojans. Those inexperienced behemoths have been studying under Tim Drevno, who left the San Francisco 49ers to coach the same position at the school he grew up rooting for.
First, however, he built a dominant offensive line in San Francisco, one that sent all five starters to the NFL Pro Bowl in 2012.
Drevno will be making a return to the Palouse on Saturday, where he spent three seasons as the offensive line coach at Idaho.
“I loved it,” Drevno said. “Really friendly people, down to earth, just a great community for your family.”
When Drevno was at Idaho, the head coach was Tom Cable, now the offensive line coach for the Seahawks. The pair sent three offensive linemen to the NFL – Rick Demulling, Jake Scott and Patrick Venzke – and the Vandals twice ranked in the top 10 nationally in total offense.
Drevno credits much of his success to Cable’s tutelage. It’s been a boon to the Trojans, who had questions at the position heading into the season but have been fine despite some adversity.
“He just coaches us up like it’s just nothing to him,” Banner said. “He’s like the guru of offensive lines and I think that people should respect him a lot for how much adversity we faced at the beginning of this season because people were thinking that we weren’t anything, that USC was going to be a great team except for the offensive line, except for the lack of depth and the youth.”
The depth has been tested, and the youth, well it’s apparent, but as long as the backups play like starters and the rookies play like veterans, Drevno doesn’t care how old any of them are.
“A football player’s a football player. It doesn’t matter if you’re a fifth-year senior or a freshman, either you can play the game or you can’t,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity, you know?”
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