Pop. Chad Wheeler’s anterior cruciate ligament had just torn.
Though USC’s starting left tackle stayed in the game for about eight more plays and tried to tough out the injury, his season was over as soon as he hopped on the cart that would take him to the locker room.
“I saw him the second play and I just know how he is and his mental toughness,” USC offensive line coach Tim Drevno said. “I asked him to call a timeout and I said, ‘Chad are you okay?’ He said, ‘Yeah, I’m going to gut it out.’ I said, ‘That’s you, That’s us. That’s who we are.’ And then when you look back, just as a coach, you always say, ‘Gosh, should I have taken him out.’ But I think the ACL was torn by then. I double checked with Russ because you want to protect your players. That’s the most important thing and priority every day.”
Now, USC coaches have the task of finding their next left tackle to protect Cody Kessler’s blindside. There are numerous options for the coaches, such as having Max Tuerk move out to tackle and Toa Lobendahn take over center duties, slotting in Aundrey Walker to replace Wheeler or having the 6-foot-3 Lobendahn take over the position for the remainder of the year. The coaches seem to have gone with the latter rather than the former as the true freshman Lobendahn took the majority of snaps at left tackle with the first team offense this week in practice.
Though he’s inexperienced at the position this year, Lobendahn remembers playing left tackle in his past.
“I felt good,” Lobendahn said. “High school memories. It was fun being out there, but it’s a lot more thinking just because I haven’t been playing that position all year. It’s going to be fun though. That’s all I played (in high school).”
With a new position, comes new challenges. Though, Lobendahn says he’ll miss Wheeler on the offensive line, he also says it’s time for the next guy to step up. Lobendahn could very well be that guy and could face some challenges at a position he hasn’t played recently.
“It’s just different from being inside at guard,” Lobendahn said. “I have more to look at, more to see and more to pick up on so I just got to get my nose in the books today and tomorrow just so I can be better and get rhythm with it.”
There’s no denying the true freshman is a little smaller than your prototypical left tackle. Lobendahn stands at 6-foot-3 and weighs in at 275-pounds, a height and weight more suited for an inside position on the offensive line. Despite the challenge that these measurable traits might provide Lobendahn, he’s only worried about one thing, and one thing only.
“I get the job done,” Lobendahn said. “It is what it is. I just got to do what I got to do. I can’t worry about height. I can only control what I can control.”
Tim Drevno isn’t worried about Lobendahn’s supposed lack of prototypical height and weight either.
“If you look at him, he’s got pretty good arm length,” Drevno said. “He’s got some good measurables. I’d say he’s about 33-and-a-half arm length so he can do the edge fine. Gosh, if you’re a football player, you’re a football player, you know.”
Even though Lobendahn is the favorite to take over the left tackle position, Aundrey Walker did a respectable job of replacing Wheeler this past weekend in the game against Utah.
“He did good,” Drevno said. “He did really good stuff. He did exactly what we wanted him to do. That’s a hard thing to come off the bench like that in a hostile environment. You could see that his veteran characteristics came through.”
It might be the simple thing to hand the left tackle job over to Lobendahn, but Drevno preaches competition. Nobody is going to be given a starting job; they have to earn it.
“From day one, when we first got here, everyday is a competition,” Drevno said. “Nobody has got starting positions locked down and you can lose them during the week. We’ll roll off the balls and find the best guys that can play. You’re job as a player is that you’re going to take another man’s job. If somebody is trying to take mine, I’m not going to let them do it. You got to have that competitive edge in your heartbeat to be great… Every one of those guys in there has done exactly what we want them to do and they do it at a high level and they love to compete. We practice hard here, which is really, really important, and you can see that in our play.”