LOS ANGELES — College coaches often warn players to ignore NFL scouts attending practices. USC right tackle Zach Banner knows this; after all, it’s his fifth year in the program. And yet Banner can’t help but sneak a glance anytime a man with an NFL team logo stands on the sideline. According to Banner, scouts often look directly at him, jot notes, then converse with one Trojans coach in particular, Ivan Lewis.
“The strength and conditioning coach,” he says. “You know why? Because he’s the one who weighs me in every day.”
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Banner boasts striking pro credentials. He is 6-foot-9, with the naturally wide base and impressive wingspan to ward defenders in pass protection. He is a three-year starter and described by coach Clay Helton as “a consummate leader… Sometimes at halftime I go into my little office to make adjustments. And I can’t think because all I hear is Zach’s bellowing voice through the hall trying to pump his teammates up.”
Banner has no known off-field concerns. He even has an NFL pedigree: His biological father is Lincoln Kennedy, a top-10 pick in 1993 and a stalwart on the offensive line for Jon Gruden’s Raiders, making three Pro Bowls (2000-02) as a right tackle. But even in a thin offensive line class, there’s one concern keeping evaluators from labeling Banner a surefire first-rounder. He is the largest player in college football.
“My weight, it’s always been about my weight,” Banner says. “That’s really the reason why I didn’t declare for the draft last year. I came back because I had to prove to NFL teams that I could lose weight, and also keep it off.”
When considering the modern lineman, we think of girth and power. The average quarterback’s size has grown steadily over time (perhaps peaking at Cam Newton), and so too has the size of the men asked to shore up the trenches around him. The average offensive lineman swelled from 6-foot-3, 255 pounds in the 1970s to 6-foot-4, 300 pounds in the 1990s to last year’s average: 6-foot-5, 312 pounds.
But there is a line before big becomes too big, and Banner has teetered on it. At one point in 2015, Banner says he was 385 pounds. Some scouts are concerned that weight could invite injuries, too much pressure on his knees. Others wonder about his stamina, if he’d be able to play at a low enough pad level, or if his weight could hinder footwork.
“I could play O.K. at that weight, but I wasn’t my best self,” Banner says. Over the past 12 months, with a strict regiment (one that inspired his family to hold their own Biggest Loser-type competition) Banner has honed in on shedding pounds. “Weight, weight, weight, I literally think about it all day,” he says. “And every time I take a bite of food, it’s like: up a dollar, down a dollar. Literally.”
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Growing up in Lakewood, Wash., 15 minutes south of Tacoma, Banner was always much bigger than his peers. He reached 5-feet by second grade. He became a spectacle.
There was a third-grade teacher who asked if Vanessa Banner if her son had a problem with authority, prompting a conference in which Vanessa said: “I understand it’s hard, as a petite woman, to have your grade-school student stand and look you eye-to-eye, but I promise he’s a good student.”
And Banner was a good student, as well as naturally charismatic and popular with classmates. (According to Helton, Banner “wants to be the next Michael Strahan TV personality.”) Banner created his own web series while at USC, “Big Man Doing Little Things,” and when the school hosted a retirement party for athletic director Pat Haden, Banner was asked to emcee.)
Weight was never an issue until Banner reached college. He complemented football with basketball throughout high school, which helped him stay active. (As a freshman in 2012, he was on the Trojans roster for both basketball and football.) But in 2013, Banner underwent hip impingement surgery on both legs, sidelining him for an entire season and forcing him to specialize in football-only rehab. The downtime didn’t serve him well. His freshman 15 swelled to a sophomore 65, fortified by fast food snacks and late-night binges. He had arrived on campus around 305-310 pounds, but was suddenly tipping the scales above 380. In the middle of last season, when he heard rumblings of poor feedback from NFL scouts, he committed to wholesale change. “I was so close to my dream of playing in the NFL, but there was one thing preventing me from getting there,” he says. “But it was one thing I can control.”
Banner wakes up at each weekday at 4:30 a.m., grabs a Nutri-Grain Bar, then reports to the facility for 40 minutes of extra cardio before the team arrives for its scheduled lift. (Over the summer he bought an LA Fitness membership so he could use the elliptical after the team weight room closed.) Banner, who has always lived with teammates, moved into a solo apartment this season in part to limit distractions—but mainly, so that he could live a life of bare cabinets. “I was with linemen and running backs and they just ate like crap or ate whenever they wanted,” Banner says. Andrea Vanderwoude, the team’s nutritionist, estimates more than half the team is trying to maintain or gain weight during the season: some lean wide receivers or defensive backs have such high metabolisms, she prescribes 7,000-calorie-a-day diets. Banner reached his goal of 345 when he reported to camp this summer, and to maintain it, Vanderwoude recommends 3,000-3,500 calories for the lineman. His weight still fluctuates; Banner says he can lose or gain between five and 10 pounds each day.
“For some guys, no matter what, it can be a struggle,” Vanderwoude says, “and for Zach it was always a struggle. He wants to lose the weight, but he also has to be smart about it. When you take away calories, you increase risk of injury, because you’re taking away recovery pieces when your body is in a state of break down.”
Vanderwoude’s meal plan includes three meals and two snacks a day—and if he’s hungry late at night, a protein shake. It involves whole foods and balanced nutrients. “I learned avocado, kale and quinoa are not so bad,” says Banner, who before our interview proudly reports he just ate a Poke bowl.
Banner’s mother is from Guam, where food is a big part of culture, and when he visits home restraint is difficult. But when Banner told his family about his goals, they decided to get onboard. He printed out a meal plan for his brother, a high school senior who plays outside linebacker, and offered his mother recipes featuring quinoa. “We’re pretty competitive so we’ve all accepted the challenge,” Vanessa says. “His sister is always texting him, I’m going to lose my next 10 pounds faster than you.”
Over the past year, Vanessa says she has lost 45 pounds; her middle son has lost about 10 pounds and her daughter, who is 13 and a competitive soccer goalie, lost about 30 pounds. “It’s amazing how he has inspired all of us,” Vanessa says.
While Banner believes weight is the biggest question mark surrounding his draft stock, scouts have expressed concern about his footwork. He sustained a left ankle sprain on the final play of the Utah game on Sept. 23, which forced him to miss two games. Scouts say Banner flashes moments of great technique, but also needs improvement in certain areas. Banner has been through five offensive line coaches in his five seasons, and his current teacher, Neil Callaway, offers this assessment: “He’s a big man, and sometimes things are a little difficult for big guys, with leverage, bending knees. I think he’s improved with a lot of the little things, like being off sides, taking the wrong step, and putting your hand in the right place, but he still is working at it.”
There are plenty rooting for Banner to succeed. “My dad was an offensive line coach in the NFL for 13 years,” Helton says. “And I think he’s Zach’s biggest fan.”
A current NFL player explains why his former collegiate teammate is destined for success as a pro. Here’s Raiders defensive lineman Jihad Ward hyping his former Illinois teammate Dawuane Smoot…
“He’s a player who’s always going to fight until the whistle. He’s quiet, like me, but a competitor. He loves the game and the way he plays shows it. The game I’ll always remember was against Nebraska. That was such a huge game for our program, and when pressure was the highest, Dawuane came through with a sack of Tommy Armstrong. His technique is great and I can see him being an explosive end in the NFL. I don’t think he’s ever played three-technique. With his speed, his power, all of that… look, there’s a lot of guys who have talent, but what separates someone like Dawuane is his effort and that’s why he’s going to be a beast at the next level.”
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FACTOID OF THE WEEK
Trent Richardson had a busy week. The former Alabama star running back, and No. 3 pick of the 2012 draft, reportedly had a tryout with the Chiefs. He also, according to reports, made a cameo at Crimson Tide practice. Actually, it was more than just a cameo: Richardson practiced on the scout team, playing the role of Leonard Fournette (an unusual allowance in the otherwise stringent NCAA rulebook). Richardson must have offered the first-team defense solid looks: Fournette was limited to 35 yards on 17 carries as Alabama won, 10-0.
A few NFL evaluators introduce you to the players they’re keeping an eye on…
Jarron Jones, DT, Notre Dame: Has a tendency to be streaky, even in games, but seems to be coming around. High-ceiling with athleticism, power and length but needs to play lower on a more consistent basis.
Bucky Hodges, TE, Virginia Tech: There’s a lot to like from size, athleticism standpoint. Top-50 pick in my opinion. Tracks the ball well and stretches the field, but needs some polish in routes. True hybrid tight end/wideout.
Fred Ross, WR, Mississippi State: Solid blocker. Good body control, runs smooth routes, especially dependable on screens and slants.
No. 25 Baylor at No. 9 Oklahoma (noon): Oklahoma running back Samaje Perine has been out since Oct. 15 with a pulled leg muscle. His backfield mate, Joe Mixon, was suspended for last week’s game for a violation of team ruels. Both are slated to play this week, meaning the return of the nation’s most potent 1-2 rushing attack (Mixon is the dazzling highlight reel complementing Perine, the workhorse bruiser). The Baylor game was a big win for Oklahoma last year, bolstering its College Football Playoff case with a signature performance from quarterback Baker Mayfield (346 yards of total offense). The Bears, once the Big 12’s only playoff hopeful, have now dropped two straight—including a 62-22 drudging at the hands of TCU last week… at home.
Pittsburgh at No. 3 Clemson (3:30 p.m.): Clemson opened as 19-points favorites; I have a feeling this game will be closer. Deshaun Watson injured his shoulder in last week’s blowout over Syracuse, but appears ready to return. I haven’t mentioned him in this column yet, but there’s another big-time draft prospect on Clemson’s offense: wideout Mike Williams. Meanwhile, Pitt has lost two straight and is losing many players to injury, but there’s still a lot to like about Pat Narduzzi’s team. Some future NFL talent to scout: offensive linemen Adam Bisnowaty and Dorian Johnson plus linebacker Ejuan Price.
Southern California at No. 4 Washington (7:30 p.m.): Want to check out Zach Banner for yourself? Coach Clay Helton has the Trojans surging, with a five-game winning streak. The catalyst: a change at quarterback, from senior Max Browne to redshirt freshman Sam Darnold. USC went from averaging 7.6 points per game to 38.5 under Darnold. The Huskies, too, have undergone a transformation this year: The preseason Pac 12 darling is now a national powerhouse. With Texas A&M losing last weekend, the 9-0 Huskies are a lock for the fourth playoff spot if they stay undefeated.
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GENIUS COACHING DECISION OF THE WEEK
Coaches are constantly being told that millennials are visual learners. That’s about the only rationalization I can offer as to why Will Muschamp furnished the South Carolina football facility with mousetraps last Wednesday morning. Here’s Muschamp with the explanation, via The Post and Courier: “I was concerned after Tuesday’s practice. We had some focus issues and we put out some mousetraps all over the building to let them know don’t take the cheese. Everyone is patting you on the back telling you how good you are, but this Missouri team coming in here is capable of beating you. So, don’t take the cheese.”
It’s just the latest example of a coach getting literal with his symbolism. With a nod to the guys at Pardon My Take for tipping me off to this, two weeks ago Penn State coach James Franklin handed every player a juice box on the Friday before its game against Purdue, a reminder to “bring the juice” on the road.
Apparently there’s some truth to the adage about visualization: Both South Carolina and Penn State won their next games.
Former NFL GM and current Reese’s Senior Bowl Executive Director Phil Savage highlights senior match-ups he’ll be keeping an eye on this week.
Utah PK Andy Phillips vs. Arizona State PK Zane Gonzalez: With extra points being moved back in the NFL, there is a renewed emphasis on placekicking. This game will feature two outstanding prospects for the 2017 draft. Phillips (5' 10″, 210 pounds) is a former member of the U.S. Alpine Ski Team (2007-11) who handles all of the kicking duties for the Utes. He has connected on 161 of 162 extra points and 77-of-92 field goals (83.7%) with a long of 53 yards. Though on kickoffs, he only has 73 touchbacks on 224 total efforts (32.5%). Gonzalez (6' 1″, 190 pounds) is the all time NCAA record holder in made field goals with 93 (out of 112 attempts, 83%), including 20 of 21 in 2016. He has a 59-yard make to his credit and has converted 196 of 201 career extra points. As a kickoff specialist, he has 115 touchbacks on 153 tries (75%). This “Duel in the Desert” should carry over into the professional ranks; both of these individuals are talented kickers.
Best of the Rest: Miami PT Justin Vogel vs. Virginia PT Nicholas Conte Minnesota S Damarius Travis vs. Nebraska TE Cethan Carter Baylor C Kyle Fuller vs. Oklahoma ILB Jordan Evans LSU CB Tre’Davious White vs. Arkansas WR Drew Morgan
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USC's campus is absurdly attractive: manicured lawns, palm trees, outdoor fire pits and cabanas. It almost feels like you're at a resort. The only thing I’m not a fan of is the gated aspect, especially when it’s past dusk and I’m on the phone with the editor of this column, Gary Gramling, logging a bulk of my 10,000 steps just to find an exit. Another bonus to attending the pricy private school: vibrant, healthy on-campus food options. (This makes life easier for Banner, for the times when he has to find meals outside the training table.) True to a California lifestyle, USC boasts a full-service farm-to-table restaurant on campus, Moreton Fig, as well as a juice bar serving acai bowls, California's popular locally sourced cafeteria Lemonade, a Mexican grill that looks like a healthier version of Chipotle, and a spot for poke bowls just across the gate. Sure, there are the sodium-heavy college staples like Panda Express, but it's a lot easier to stay healthy when the other options are right next door.