USC Football’s biggest task of fall camp is to identify the best five offensive linemen from a flexible group of talented contenders.
What will USC Football’s offensive line look like in 2017? That may be a simple question, but the answer is decidedly complicated.
USC’s offensive line situation is complex because the battles aren’t particularly clear. They couldn’t be, with so many players contending for so many positions.
While right guard Viane Talamaivao is as close to a sure-thing as USC could have on the offensive line, the remaining slots are all up for grabs after the departures of Zach Banner, Chad Wheeler and Damien Mama for the NFL.
As expected, Toa Lobendahn, who started 2016 as the top center, and Nico Falah, who finished the year in the middle after Lobendahn’s season-ending knee injury, are competing with each other for the starting center job.
But Lobendahn is also double-training at left tackle, where Clayton Johnston is making a push.
Johnston has taken first team reps at the position through three practices, holding his own against a ferocious Trojan pass rush. After gaining 20 pounds since December while still maintaining his athleticism, the redshirt sophomore is now in contention to play in 2017, if not nail down a starting job.
“He really came on in spring, had a nice spring and now he’s positioned right there,” Helton said.
Meanwhile Falah is simultaneously battling for the right tackle spot, where Chuma Edoga has operated through the start of camp.
Edoga underwent surgery on his right hand earlier this year, prompting his move back to the right side of the line, where he can be more comfortable with his handwork.
“Chuma is investing on the right side, a lot having to do with that right hand,” Helton said. “He just feels more comfortable over there because you don’t use your outside hand as much and being a right tackle, you’re forced to use that left hand so much more significantly than your outside hand.”
Complicating matters? If Lobendahn takes the center spot and Falah locks down the right tackle position, Edoga could always shift back to the left, joining in a new battle with Johnston.
But that’s not the end of it either. There are dark horse candidates to battle for playing time and starting jobs who have already emerged from the loaded freshman class.
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“I have been impressed with both Austin [Jackson] and Andrew [Voorhees], both at the tackle positions, and where they’re at for freshmen,” Helton said, also citing his frustration that a hamstring injury has sidelined Alijah Vera-Tucker, another freshman who started camp strongly.
Jackson and Voorhees, who have settled in with second team reps already, have caught the coaches eyes for a couple of reasons.
The first is their athleticism, which was precisely the reason they were recruited.
“We over-signed at the tackle position knowing that we could move a couple guys inside, but we really wanted to gain that athleticism,” Helton said.
“We’re looking for the 300-pound athletes. Right now we have a good crop of them, a good young crop of them.”
Having athletes who can move on the offensive line is key for the Trojans, specifically in the run game with a rusher like Ronald Jones, who thrives on outside zone runs.
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Young offensive linemen usually pick up run blocking schemes quickly though, Helton said.
The second way Jackson and Voorhees have stood out is in the way they have picked up the more complex aspect of the offensive line trade.
“I’ve been really impressed with them in the pass game,” Helton said. “All five freshmen are doing well in the run game but those two guys have really stood out in our pass protection schemes.
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“To be matched up on a Wole [Betiku] or a Connor Murphy and be able to hold their own, not every time, but to be able to really compete with two guys that have been here for a year — That’s a good sign,” Helton said.
Helton and offensive line coach Neil Callaway have more than a dozen practices to decide whether Jackson and Voorhees can break into the lineup before they set a depth chart, two weeks ahead of the season opener against Western Michigan.
They also have more than a dozen practices to make decisions on set positions for Lobendahn, Falah and Edoga.
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When it comes down to it, the complex situation has a simple solution.
“Our job is to find the best five,” Helton said.
When you put it that way, it sounds easy enough.