Khaliel Rodgers has gone from third string to being the center of attention.
The third-year sophomore is the third center to start for USC’s football team this season, and never has he been faced with a bigger challenge than the one he will face Saturday when the Trojans play UCLA at the Coliseum with a spot in the Pac-12 Conference championship game on the line.
Across the line of scrimmage from Rodgers will be Kenny Clark, the 6-foot-3, 310-pound anchor of UCLA’s defense.
Important one-on-one matches will be played out all over the field during this crosstown rivalry game, but none is more important than Rodgers vs. Clark. That is, if it actually stays one-on-one.
Most centers who line up opposite Clark need help from other blockers.
Rodgers will be making his fifth start for USC, which lost centers Max Tuerk and Toa Lobendahn to season-ending knee injuries.
And Rodgers has experienced his own health concerns, having sustained partial separations in both shoulders.
“He keeps going,” USC interim Coach Clay Helton said. “It just amazes me.”
Neutralizing Clark is the key to running on UCLA, which several opponents have been able to do. But Clark’s size and agility — he was a CIF heavyweight wrestling champion as a senior at Rialto Carter High — usually require a double team.
“Kenny is a quick decision-maker and has great leverage,” said Angus McClure, who coaches UCLA’s defensive line. “It’s hard to take him out in close games. With the game on the line, I’m going to ride Kenny.”
Clark played more than 100 plays against Colorado and 70 in an important UCLA win over Utah last week. “That’s incredible,” McClure said. “Usually if a nose guard gets 40 plays, that’s pretty good.”
Clark is third on the team with 57 tackles. He said that the Bruins’ defensive effort will start with stopping a USC running game in which the top three backs combine to average more than 6.0 yards per carry.
With senior Tre Madden sidelined by a bruised knee the last two games, the Trojans have gone with a tag-team duo of Justin Davis and Ronald Jones III at running back. Jones, a freshman, has 827 yards rushing; Davis, a junior, has 646.
“Their offensive line does a good job moving the front,” Clark said. “The freshman does a good job hitting the hole. He can take it all the way.”
Clark and the UCLA defense can’t allow that to happen.
“The first thing for a defense is stopping the run,” Clark said. “Cut off the run and you can pin your ears back and go after the passer.”
Clark’s pass-rushing rushing skills have improved dramatically this season. He is second on the team with five sacks.
In Rodgers, Clark will be facing a player who has developed quickly since being permanently moved from guard last month.
“For a guy who’s still learning the position, he’s really been one of the MVPs for our team to allow us to function down the stretch,” Helton said. “He’s a special part of helping get us to a championship game.”
Rodgers took some practice reps at center during the spring, when the task of going head to head with a force such as Clark might have seemed inconceivable.
“He’s one of those guys you really have to game plan for,” Helton said of Clark. “You look in the league and there’s some special guys out there that you go, ‘OK we’re going to have to do something to stop this young man.’
“He’s one of those guys.”
Times staff writer Gary Klein contributed to this article.