How much can Kevin Graf do now that he couldn't do last year, when he played the entire season with a torn labrum in his right shoulder?
"A lot," he said Sunday, laughing. "There's a lot of things I couldn't do. I was playing the left side so my right arm was my main use, and when I can't use that, when it's popping out on me, it's kinda hard to block. Even for pass-blocking, it just [gave] up on me.
"It was kinda hard to do everything you need to do."
Graf, USC's presumptive starting right tackle this season, doesn't know when he tore the labrum. Neither do the Trojans. But by this time last season, he was already experiencing the type of pain that plagued him throughout the year. Practicing at left tackle, he'd often feel his shoulder pop out of its socket as he attempted to block Trojans defensive ends in passing and running situations. He learned to deal with it, but he never felt 100 percent.
"Every day, and it wasn't just once a day," he said of the popping-out sensation. "It was a couple of times."
Former fullback Stanley Havili had a similar ailment last season, and it received a fair amount of publicity over the course of the season. Few knew the extent of Graf's injury -- heck, USC didn't even know. He went into surgery after the season expecting to have just one part of the labrum repaired but came to an hour and a half later than expected and found out both the front and back parts of the tendon had been torn.
Doctors repaired both and Graf sat out of spring practice while he rehabilitated the injury. The redshirt sophomore was a near-unanimous All-American as a prep at nearby Agoura High in 2008, but he hadn't shown much of the same skills in his first two years at USC, something he now attributes to the shoulder injury. As a first-year freshman in 2009 he redshirted and dealt with a few nagging injuries, like a stinger that kept him out for a time.
But, even with all that, he stayed on the field. And USC head coach Lane Kiffin and offensive line coach James Cregg have looked back on last fall now and complimented Graf for his tenacity to do so.
"Even with my shoulder problem, I still worked hard," Graf said. "I wasn't going to just give up on myself. I still worked as hard as I could and I think that's what they noticed more of, showing that I was working through my pain, working through my problems."
Does he think the coaching staff sees Graf as a new player now, with him healthy for the first time and proving to be a force on an offensive line that desperately needs another player it can count on outside of Matt Kalil and Khaled Holmes?
Yes. But it's not only the coaches who hold that opinion.
"I see a new player in me," Graf said Sunday, smiling. "I see myself firing off the ball, doing things I didn't do last year."