Damien Mama’s decision to declare for the NFL leaves USC football with three open spots to fill on the offensive line. How will the Trojans cope?
Back in 2011, the future looked bright for USC after a 10-2 season. But the Trojans faltered in 2012, in large part because the departure of elite left tackle Matt Kalil destabilized the offense, in both the run and pass game.
Avoiding a repeat of that 2012 disappointment begins on the offensive line, where the Trojans lose not one, or even two, but three future NFL offensive linemen.
Starting tackles Zach Banner and Chad Wheeler have both exhausted their college eligibility, while left guard Damien Mama opted to declare for the NFL after three seasons in Troy.
Successfully replacing those three towering figures and rebuilding the offensive line is USC’s first priority when looking forward to the 2017 season.
Replacing Banner is simple. Though rumors have swirled around Chuma Edoga leaving the program, the soon-to-be junior is apparently set to remain with the Trojans.
That gives USC a clear replacement at tackle, whether Edoga steps in for Banner on the right or Wheeler on the left.
From there, the Trojans have two positions to fill — left guard and, presumably, left tackle — with right guard Viane Talamaivao and center Nico Falah due back.
Though Falah was converted from tackle, it seems unlikely that USC would disrupt another position on the line to move him back outside, especially after a largely successful 2016 campaign.
Continuity is half the battle when it comes to the offensive line.
Still, the versatility of a number of the Trojan linemen provides options for offensive line coach Neil Callaway.
Should Toa Lobendahn reclaim his starting center role after missing most of the 2016 season with an ACL tear, Falah could conceivably take up a starting job at left tackle.
More likely, it could be Lobendahn who moves back to his original position at left guard, becoming a direct replacement for Mama.
That would theoretically free up Chris Brown, an oft-used member of USC’s line rotation, to move from left guard to left tackle, replacing Wheeler.
Alternatively, Callaway could leave Brown where he played most of the 2016, while moving Lobendahn outside to left tackle, where he started five games as a freshman.
Undoubtedly, those are the simplest scenarios for the Trojans, taking a group of players with plenty of experience and distributing them across the open positions without too much upheaval. In fact, Lobendahn, Brown and Edoga have 70 games of experience between the three, including 21 starts for Lobendahn, four for Edoga and three for Browne.
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Of course, there are always wildcards to factor in, from injuries to unexpected offseason standouts.
Reserve right tackle Nate Smith will miss the run up to the season due to an knee injury suffered in December, but back up left tackle Clayton Johnston will have the opportunity to compete for playing time. The same goes for highly-rated recruits looking to take the next step, like Roy Hemsley, Frank Martin and Jordan Austin.
Meanwhile, commits for the 2017 class would certainly relish the chance to come in and see the field right away, though it would take something special to impress Callaway enough to jump into action early.