Zach Banner, USC's biggest big man, is a little bit less so

Zach Banner slouched at a table during Pac-12 media days last month, across from USC teammate Adoree’ Jackson, and muttered to himself. Jackson, 5 feet 11, 185 pounds, was holding court, expounding on his peculiar eating habits. Banner, 6-9, just shy of double Jackson’s weight, was trying not to listen.

“Three McChickens, a fish filet, a large fry and a large sweet tea,” Jackson was saying, recounting the previous night’s dinner.

Banner furrowed his brow, concentrated on his own interview.

“I need to bring the value menu back down,” Jackson’s voice wafted across the table. “I remember I could use five dollars and 27 cents for three McChickens, a small fry and a large sweet tea with no ice.”

Banner paused.

“I can go out there and run it off and get back into shape,” Jackson said. “So I don’t eat poorly. Well, I don’t think I eat poorly.”

At that, Banner laughed, muttered something and turned away.

“Whatever,” Banner said.

Banner, who USC has declared is (unofficially) the largest player in college football, was once as carefree as Jackson in front of a plate of food. As recently as last season, Banner often weighed more than 375 pounds.

Banner views his weight as a personal challenge. He knows NFL scouts are concerned about his ability to control it. He says he doesn’t want to “eat myself out of the league,” in college or the NFL.

So he spent this off-season nibbling, working with the nutrition staff to measure his intake, and putting himself through extra workouts. Banner reported to training camp at a leaner 345 pounds.

For the massive men on the offensive line, measuring weight is an inexact science, since it can fluctuate by as many as 10 pounds daily with sweat and rehydration. Banner’s slim-down falls well outside that margin of error. He said he has lost about 40 pounds.

Essentially, Banner has trimmed off the equivalent of a five-gallon water cooler, the ones found in most American offices.

“He needed to, you know?” said offensive line coach Neil Callaway. “He was too heavy when we got here.”

The program began shortly after last season ended. Banner attended USC’s usual workout programs, but he told strength and conditioning coach Ivan Lewis he preferred to perform extra work alone. He wanted to prove to himself he could do it.

“I don’t have anything off the field. I don’t have any issues,” Banner said. “You don’t hear about me cussing out teachers. You don’t hear about me having an issue with the law. All this type of stuff. Only thing people ever talked about was, ‘Is his weight too high?’”

Most days, Banner would run 20 sprints of 20 yards, since that is usually the farthest distance he runs in a game (other than any fumbles he might scoop up for a touchdown, he added hopefully). He bought an LA Fitness membership and ran on the elliptical machine late at night, after USC’s weight room closed.

He tried to “keep the heart rate up, sweat,” he said.

He paused, then added, “Well, I always sweat.”

The cardio was easy, he said, since he’d played basketball for most of his life. The hard part was avoiding the temptations of a late-night doughnut. The hard part was forcing himself to eat right.

At the beginning of the off-season, he devised an eating plan with Michael Minnis, USC’s former head nutritionist. Minnis broke down how many calories he’d need each day of protein, carbohydrates and fat. When Minnis took a job with the Philadelphia Eagles,  Andrea Vanderwoude took over at USC. Each day’s plan was sent to Banner’s aunt, Malah Fuller, whom Banner said he paid to prepare boxed meals.

Fuller would make normal dishes, heavy on foods like chicken, rice and broccoli. One time, Fuller mixed in some spaghetti squash. Banner told her never again. The meals contained about 80 grams of protein and more than double that in carbohydrates. Overall, he limited himself to about 3,500 to 4,000 calories per day, still significantly higher than most humans, all packed neatly into Tupperware.

“Not a normal-sized Tupperware,” Vanderwoude said. “They’re pretty big.”

“You don’t want to starve yourself,” Banner said.

When Banner eats in the dining hall, Vanderwoude accompanies him, helping him find the proper nutritional balance. He eats about every three hours, snacking on protein shakes and fruits. He never eats dessert, Vanderwoude said. Sometimes the occasional sweet can help; it’s difficult to stay disciplined all the time. Banner declined.

 

On the field, Banner’s size sometimes warps perspective and causes expectations to swell. He chafed at a recent scouting report from CBS Sports (he admits to reading many of his press clippings) that suggested he struggles with athletic, flexible pass rushers.

“And I’m just thinking to myself, I’ve given up one sack in two years of starting,” Banner said. “Who was the one small pass rusher that I just couldn’t stop that game?”

The reality is, Banner was the nation's best pass-blocking right tackle last season, according to Pro Football Focus. He ranked 15th among all linemen in run blocking. (He also committed the second-most penalties.)

Still, Callaway said, Banner could improve his foot quickness. Banner said he could already feel a difference in training camp. With less weight, he could move faster.

“He’s always been good at the beginning of camps,” Coach Clay Helton said. “The challenge for him this season, going into his last year, is to keep that weight, on a day-to-day basis, where it doesn’t balloon up to 380.”

In anticipation, Banner continued his sprinting routine into training camp, until Lewis, the strength and conditioning coach, caught him and chewed him out, Banner said. Lewis was worried Banner would overexert himself and get injured.

Maybe he’ll try it again once the season starts, Banner said. He said he’d love to settle his weight in the 330s.

Even if he did, he’d still be the biggest player on the team, a title he embraces. USC recently starred him in a short web series called “Big Man Doing Little Things.” Banner did ballet with small children. He got stuck on a playground slide. He enjoyed a tea party. In each, Banner hammed it up, smiling for the cameras.

“I am really happy on how much I weigh right now,” Banner said.

He is content being big. It’s just that he appreciates that the kiddie chair at the tea party didn’t snap in half when he sat down.

zach.helfand@latimes.com

Twitter: @zhelfand

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