Instead, Connelly wanted Falah to be ready to go on a whim’s notice.
“He didn’t come out today to practice to think he was going to get a rep at left tackle,” Connelly said. “Now all of a sudden, he’s thrown in…'Wow. I’ve got to do this.' I think it’s good. It develops them. It gets them out of their comfort zone.”
In a game situation, you never know if the backup or even the backup's backup will be needed after a player goes down with an injury or illness. The most extreme example is probably Maryland’s quarterback position in 2012.
After starter Danny O’Brien transferred in the offseason, presumed replacement senior C.J. Brown tore his ACL during a non-contact drill before the season. Freshman Perry Hills stepped in and started the first seven games, but went down with a torn ACL against North Carolina State. His backup, sophomore Devin Burns, broke his foot in the same game, forcing freshman Caleb Rowe into action. A week later, Rowe tore his ACL on the penultimate play of the game. Head coach Randy Edsall was then forced to use a true freshman linebacker that had played quarterback in high school.
That’s an extreme example, but it’s an important one for players to note because injuries occur so frequently in football. That’s why Connelly essentially threw the 6-foot-4, 285-pound redshirt sophomore, Falah, into a game scenario where current starting left tackle Toa Lobendahn was unavailable.
“I’m always preparing to get first-team reps, but as coach said then, ‘If someone goes down, the next guy is up.’”
“It was really good,” Falah said of his first-team reps. “It was a humbling experience, going against the best of the best at USC. I think hard work pays off. I worked hard for this and the opportunity is finally showing up, so I’m trying to take advantage of it.”
Falah had some issues with the outside edge rushers on occasion with Su’a Cravens sneaking through for a sack once and the defensive ends and rush ends speeding around the corner, but some growing pains are to be expected when you are thrust up another tier of the ladder.
In the offensive line/defensive line isolation drills, Falah held his own, including a fun matchup with his former Bellflower (Calif.) St. John Bosco teammate, Malik Dorton, who has been earning praise for his work as a backup defensive end this spring. Falah allowed Dorton to have the edge, but forced him to carry his arc around the quarterback and out of the play rather than being able to get back inside to the passer.
“[We] put him in with the ones a bunch again today and he’s performing. And that’s really cool for me,” head coach Steve Sarkisian said.
It was Falah’s brightest opportunity to shine since arriving at USC from Bosco as a four-star recruit. While some people thought he might compete for playing time immediately, Falah redshirted his first year on campus and then only saw the field in USC’s three biggest blowouts last season — Fresno State, Colorado and Notre Dame.
“Out of high school, I was used to playing a lot and starting. But redshirting and last year not playing, it was an eye-opening experience that I wasn’t doing something right,” Falah said. “It was tough. It hurt a lot, honestly, inside. It hurt me and my family.”
“In this day and age,” Sarkisian said, “a kid signs with USC and there’s this instant gratification that every kid is supposed to come in and start as a true freshman and be a Freshman All-American. It doesn’t always work like that.”
So Falah set out to fix what was wrong this offseason and that started with him getting stronger and working on having better footwork. He is also trying to soak up as much information as he can from those in front of him, including injured Chad Wheeler.
“I’m learning a lot from Damien Mama, my high school teammate, and from Chad at left tackle. They’re the veterans. They have the experience. I’m just trying to gain as much knowledge from them as possible.”
While Wheeler is hobbled by the ACL tear he suffered against Utah, he is still very involved. Falah said he’s in every meeting, weightlifting session and even though he can’t participate, Wheeler is always at practice and there on the sideline to explain what Falah did right and wrong after each set of reps.
“Obviously, experience and time makes us all better. Reps makes us all better,” Connelly said. “The experience is going to improve their football IQ.”
“There’s the developmental side to this piece that we take pride in as a coaching staff that we get to develop these guys and ultimately, they can achieve their potential,” Sarkisian said. “I think Nico’s a classic example of that. He’s continuing to work and he’s getting better. And he’s gaining confidence, not only on the field, but off the field.”
For Falah, there is plenty of work still to go. Reps during one practice is ultimately just one spring practice. But he was proud of drawing some attention.
“I think I accomplished just getting my name out there. I finally opened the coaches’ eyes that I can compete and play at a high level, but I’ve still got a lot of work to do and a lot of ground to make up for.”
Connelly said the opportunity to move Falah up presented itself because a second-team player was hurt and unable to practice. Presumably, that player was Khaliel Rodgers, who had been practicing as the backup center but was not at Tuesday’s practice. With Rodgers not available, Connelly moved Lobendahn to second-team center and gave Falah the promotion for the day.
“You never ever know what’s going to happen and you never want to be caught with your pants down so to speak. Right? You get in a situation where you have a couple of injuries and you’re not expecting it, you better have answers, so it’s nice to be able to cross-train and get some of those guys at least some reps and give some opportunities to get into a live scrimmage situation and or practice situations where they’re thrown into a situation they may not be comfortable with.”