USC Football Mailbag: The Plan for Offensive and Defensive Lines?

Oct 17, 2015; South Bend, IN, USA; General view of the line of scrimmage as Southern California Trojans center Toa Lobendahn (50) prepares to snap the ball against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 17, 2015; South Bend, IN, USA; General view of the line of scrimmage as Southern California Trojans center Toa Lobendahn (50) prepares to snap the ball against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports /

What does the future hold for the Trojans up front? How can you judge Clay Helton in 2017? RoT’s USC football mailbag seeks answers.

Spring Camp 2017 opened up for USC football last week, with position battles up front being among the focus areas for the Trojans.

Not only do the Trojans have to replace 11 key starters by Week 1 against Western Michigan, they have to do it with three key departures on the offensive line, along with the loss of the Rose Bowl’s Defensive Player of the Game.

Where does Troy go from here? Let’s open the ‘bag…

QUESTION: I know it’s early in spring ball, but what will the offensive line and the defensive line look like in the fall? — Nabil A.

ANSWER: It is definitely early and a lot can change between now and September, but here’s some projections.

Center Nico Falah and right guard Viane Talamaivao return as starters on the offensive line, while Chris Brown has been a part-time starter with Damien Mama at left guard, so that’s three positions fairly settled.

Chuma Edoga opened spring at left tackle, and since he has the most experience at the position, it’s safe to say he’ll be a starter as well.

That leaves the right tackle spot, which has been filled by redshirt sophomore Roy Hemsley to start camp. Hemsley has to win the job, but there aren’t that many challengers, so he has a definite leg up.

The wildcard on the offensive line is Toa Lobendahn, who will not participate this spring while he recovers from the season-ending ACL injury he suffered in September. Given his athleticism, experience and versatility, Lobendahn could reasonably displace any of the five penciled-in starters already discussed. Whether or not he’ll be fit enough to do that remains a question.

Wherever Lobendahn ends up, however, the simplest answer on the offensive line is this: Expect a six-man rotation involving Edoga, Brown, Falah, Talamaivao, Hemsley and Lobendahn.

The defensive line proposes similar guesswork, with Kenny Bigelow playing the role of Lobendahn as a wildcard returning from injury.

Rasheem Green has one starting job locked down, but the other two are as up in the air as any on the depth chart.

SEE ALSO: Projecting USC’s 2017 Depth Chart Post-Signing Day

For now, Josh Fatu and Christian Rector are the favorites to either clinch starting places or settle in as major parts of the rotation at nose tackle and defensive tackle respectively. Behind them Jacob Daniel and Malik Dorton have work to do to earn enough trust to see the field regularly.

What could a potential starting line up look like on opening day? Let’s go with Green, Bigelow and Rector, but don’t count out freshmen Marlon Tuipulotu and Jay Tufele forcing their way in there before long.

QUESTION: What are the new metrics and milestones for evaluating Helton’s progress? I’d say conf champ, playoffs, success beyond Darnold. — @HDFoley

ANSWER: You’ve hit the nail on the head with both the milestones and the order they should be listed, but I’ll expand.

It was outstanding to finish the 2016 season with a Rose Bowl win, but Helton hasn’t hit the first benchmark of true success at USC — a Pac-12 championship. Measuring Helton’s progress begins there.

And the head coach knows that.

“Even though [the Rose Bowl win] was great memories, an unbelievable time, it’s our time to go try to win Pac-12 championships and national championships. That’s what SC is about,” Helton said on the first day of spring camp.

If Helton wins the Pac-12 South, he’s accomplished the bare minimum. If he wins the conference, he’s succeeded at his job and should receive the praise and stability that comes with it.

Having said that, the Trojan head coach will always be judged on national titles, so eventually the metric of success for Helton will have to shift. If he consistently wins conference titles, his job will be safe, but eventually he’ll have to deliver something more to keep the USC family happy.

CHECK OUT: Ranking USC’s Best and Worst Head Coaches Ever

Those expectations apply to any man who takes the USC job, but the idea of “succeeding beyond Sam Darnold” is unique to Helton, and it’s real. It’s unfair to apply all of the credit for the Trojans’ success in 2016 to Darnold, but Helton’s performance after the stellar quarterback leaves will provide undeniable context when it comes to the head coach’s impact.

QUESTION: How would you explain #USC the BB Team’s persistent frenetic play and lack of poise when trying to close-out competitive games? — Dave C.

ANSWER: Watching USC’s basketball team can be a trying experience at times, especially in the final and critical minutes of a close game. Anyone who suffered through the end of the Trojans’ unacceptable loss to ASU can attest to that.

Still, the lack of poise is nothing unique to USC. It’s simply what happens when you put a group of 18 to 22-year-olds under immense pressure — they occasionally lose their cool. And once one’s head has gone, it’s easy for a collective panic to spread.

That’s what happened to the Trojans against ASU. And that’s what will inevitably happen to any number of teams in the NCAA tournament. It’s why they call it March Madness. Upsets happen because teams with more talent simply lose their composure and open windows for plucky underdogs to take advantage.

That’s not to excuse anyone at USC for their late game struggles. It’s Andy Enfield’s job to keep his team under control and to have his players so well drilled that they don’t fall into those late game traps. He still has to prove that he’s capable of doing that, which is what separates the great coaches from the average or good.

More from Reign of Troy

QUESTION: Who is the biggest unsung USC hero in the pros? Rey Maualuga is still in the game after like 8 years. That’s an amazing career. — Sean

ANSWER: Maualuga has had a decent career, but I’d go with Jurrell Casey, who has started 92 games in six season with the Tennessee Titans, tallying 221 tackles and 33 sacks. He’s made two Pro Bowl appearances and probably doesn’t get the props he should from the Trojan Family.

QUESTION: It looked like JuJu was in Cleveland recently, would he be able to succeed there since Cody might be QB1 & JuJu is his fav target? — Darlene

ANSWER: Your first mistake is putting the words “succeed” and “Cleveland” in the same sentence.

JuJu Smith-Schuster could find success with the Browns who need playmakers at receiver, especially with Terrell Pryor off to the Washington Redskins, but I wouldn’t link his fate with Cody Kessler’s.

Brown’s QB1s don’t have the best track record with longevity.