Khaled Holmes is Lane Kiffin's first choice to start at center in 2011.
The only problem is he probably won't be able to practice for all of spring.
Holmes, a redshirt junior from Santa Ana Mater Dei who started 13 games at right guard last season, was tabbed to make the move over to center and replace Kristofer O'Dowd even before he had ever started a game at USC. Kiffin said last August during fall camp that Holmes was the likely center of the future because of his cerebral nature, and, since the 2010 season ended in December, Holmes has took it upon himself to learn the unnatural art of snapping in preparation for the upcoming year.
But he's still not cleared for contact in practice -- the neck stingers that had the USC coaching staff scared for his football future last fall again threatening to limit his progress. He does some light snapping and was even going one-on-one with injured defensive tackle Christian Tupou after Saturday's practice, but he likely won't be doing any 11-on-11 work until August.
"I should be fine for the fall," Holmes said Saturday. "We're just trying to be safe and ensure that I can be ready for the fall."
His issue is simple: he's been hit in the neck a little too hard more times than is natural for human beings. At one point last summer, Kiffin intimated to reporters that Holmes' injuries could be career-threatening. He since retracted that statement and Holmes said that same week that he was day-to-day, but he has continued to be medically tested in the time being.
And he's passed the tests, he said, with "nothing pointing toward surgery or anything long-term."
Another interesting part of his situation is this: Can moving to center reduce the stress on his neck in the future? He said that did not play a major role in the coaching staff's decision to move him to center but did concede there could be long-term benefits to the switch, center typically being regarded as a less-physical, more-mental spot than any other offensive line position.
"It's possible," he said. " It seems that you're helping out more, as opposed to getting help from, you know what I mean? The center's kind of distorting guys more than just straight up blocking."
Holmes and the player he'll be snapping to, Matt Barkley, played together on varsity for three years at Mater Dei, but never as center and quarterback. Holmes has never played center competitively, but the Trojans feel comfortable he'll be a fine fit there -- when healthy, obviously.
It also comes down to the fact that USC doesn't have anyone else with much center experience, former walk-on Abe Markowitz and inexperienced redshirt sophomore John Martinez being really the only other options.
“It’s obviously a very important position for us,” Kiffin said. “He’s an extremely intelligent player, which helps at that spot.”
Holmes said it was particularly frustrating to be forced to sit out considering the circumstances this spring, the Trojans' offensive line possessing just six available scholarship players for all of drills -- but he also sounds like a player readying for his time to come in a few months.
"I mean, whether they're struggling or not, it'd be frustrating," Holmes said. " The first time I ever missed practice was this season, Hawaii week. The first 2 1/2 years I was here I never missed a day of a workout or practice or anything, so it is a very strange feeling. It's not something you get used to, but if you think it's the right decision it makes it a little easier.
"If you feel like you should be out there going full-speed, then it's tougher, but I understand the decision and I agree with it."