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January 11, 2012

One spot left, two ready to tangle for it

Competition Tuesday lives. Even if it was only the first day of winter workouts.

There was competition in the air after the first early practice as USC football players headed out from Heritage Hall for the rest of their day after a quick conditioning and weightlifing session.

A competition for the one offensive spot up for grabs.

Technically, nine starters return; but if you consider the redshirt sophomore tight end duo of Randall Telfer/Xavier Grimble as almost equals with departing senior Rhett Ellison, then there's really just one position open: left tackle.

Matt Kalil is off to the NFL, joining Tyron Smith as the second straight Trojans junior to be the top offensive lineman in the April draft.

And that leaves the personal protector's position for returning quarterback and Heisman Trophy frontrunner Matt Barkley wide open. And worth competing for. Which is just what seems to be happening already as the two frontrunners, Redshirt junior and starting right tackle Kevin Graf and freshman backup guard and tackle Aundrey Walker, are clearly ready to do battle.

Walker came by first, almost bouncing as he headed to the bike rack. But the contact-loving first-year lineman from Cleveland was sporting a new look. Several of them to be exact.

The full beard and styled mohawk 'do gave him a "Mr. T goes to college" look, but it was anything but threatening. Maybe that's because of the big grin on the freshman's face that came alive when he was asked how much weight he'd lost over the holidays.

"It looks like you've got a real bounce in your step now," the young man who showed up last July carrying 365 pounds on his substantial 6-foot-6 frame was told. "You've lost some weight, right?"

The smile was all the answer he needed. "Thanks for noticing," he said. "I have."

"So what do you weigh now?"

The guess here would have been significantly lower than in the summer. Walker didn't just look trimmer, he seemed almost slimmer. The bounce in his step said so. He was moving quickly, light on his feet, something we hadn't really seen him do as a top backup at both guard and tackle in the fall of 2011. There were days he was dragging his feet as hard as he hoped to go.

"I'm 330," Walker said. And yes, the 35 pounds he's lost have made a big difference.

"I am moving a lot better," Walker said, after a trip home to Ohio for the holidays. Normally that's a time for packing on a few extra pounds. But not this year. Not for Walker. He went home to get an early start on winter workouts. For one simple reason.

"I want to be left tackle," he said. And he's not just talking about it. "I've been working out with my uncle, LeCharles Bentley," he said. "He's the man."

He's more than that. His uncle was an All-America center at Ohio State, the Rimington Award winner as the nation's top center and a two-time All-Pro with the Saints and Browns before his career was cut short in 2006 with a serious knee injury. So going home for the holidays was all business, Walker said.

And with his uncle's Ohio State connections, maybe the Buckeyes will be in Walker's future with the Pac-12/Big Ten scheduling cooperative. "I'd like that," he said, "with all my guys (from Cleveland Glenville HS) at Ohio State.

"But I'd like something more than that," Walker said. "I'd like Alabama or LSU. That's who I want to play."

Play is what Graf wants to do, and do it back at his old left tackle spot. This fall was a first for him on the right side, where the more the season went on, the more Graf, and the rest of an underrated offensive line, figured it out. The eight sacks allowed by USC tied for lowest in the nation.

But it wasn't all perfectly easy. "The stance was the biggest adjustment for me," said Graf, like Walker, with a 6-foot-6 frame. But unlike Walker, at 290 pounds, he has a desire, and a need, to gain weight right now.

He grabs his haunches to indicate where he has to put on some muscle mass. "I want to play at 300," Graf said. Just the same as Kalil.

But to those who think left tackle is a much different animal from right, with a righ-thanded quarterback, it's not, says the player who has played both.

"I don't really see that big a difference at all, except for the stance," Graf says of the switch. Sure, you might see more edge speed rushers split wider as a left tackle, and more players on your nose on the right side, he agrees. "But it's just not that different. Not to me, anyway."

Then there is this. "It's where I want to play," Graf said. "It's all I've been doing this winter."

So there you have it. If Walker does make the step up with his new-look body, it would seem he'll move in somewhere. And move is what Graf wants to do, as well.

Both feel they can do it. And can't wait for the chance to show just what they can do.

Dan Weber covers the Trojans program for USCFootball.com. You can reach him at weber@uscfootball.com.


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