Spring preview: O-line must finally step up

Time for a deep, veteran Trojans group to make it happen with a new coach, Neil Callaway, who knows how to get it done.

It all starts here. Literally.

On the offensive line.

But then that was the Trojan story going into last fall. They were about to come into their own, so it appeared, with a veteran group that was big, strong and tested.

And then they went out and allowed more sacks than all but 23 (of 128) teams in the nation – including three straight to an untouched Wisconsin backup linebacker in the Holiday Bowl.

And gave up more tackles for losses than all but 26 teams. And despite the presence of dynamic freshman running back Ronald Jones with tough-minded three-year veteran Justin Davis, were no better than 70th in the nation running the football, averaging just 4.47 yards a carry. And don’t talk about penalties. Those 7.36 penalties a game – in the bottom 20 nationally -- didn’t help.

That has to change. Hold that. It will change. Neil Callaway’s presence pretty much guarantees that it will. There will be attention to detail. And toughness. Not a hope. Not a prayer. That’s just the way it’s going to be.

"He carries a big stick," quarterbacks coach Tyson Helton said of his colleague who came with him from Top 25 Western Kentucky’s record-breaking program the past two years.

"We want to be tougher than the people we play," Callaway says. "That comes from your day-to-day habits."

Not from press clippings.

”The Trojans should have one of the strongest offensive lines in the league – maybe the entire country,” writes ESPN Pac-12 blogger Kevin Gemmell. “USC returns all five of its starters with a few more to spare,” as he lists all 11 Trojans who have had a start. “Deep and experienced should make for a good combination.”

But it ”should” have made for one in 2015. And then along came a season when the Trojans couldn’t run it when they had to or throw it with any certainty that Cody Kessler wouldn’t be running for his life when he tried to.

But who will be the five starters, the guys who "show up for practice and games mad and ready to knock people around," as Helton describes Callaway's basic gameplan for his guys.

"You're going to have to earn it," Callaway says. "If you don't, there's a place on the Scout team for you."

"This isn't going to get done in the spring,” he says, predicting it will be "going right up to the fall. What will matter here? “Attention to detail,' he says, "and toughness.”

And no depth chart. Just 16 prospects who’d better show up ready to play every day. And despite the probable absence of centers Toa Lobendahn and Khaliel Rodgers rehabbing from knee and shoulder surgery, there are plenty of bodies available -- nine of whom have starts to their name,

And if you’re trying to figure out the tackle spot for seniors Zach Banner and Chad Wheeler who between them have 61 career starts, here’s how USC is handling that: “We’re saying that Banner returns on the right and Wheeler on the left," a USC spokesman said, "but that’ll all be figured out in spring ball.”

Banner, something of a surprise for his return after an All-Pac-12 season, is the key wherever he goes. His goals to be an All-American, first-round draft pick and national and Pac-12 champ, in addition to losing at least 30 pounds from his 6-foot-9, 360-pound frame, are also big ones.

Then there's Wheeler, whose return is also something of a surprise as he gets past whatever it was that knocked him out of the Holiday Bowl for an off-campus incident that required police intervention and hospitalization.

Lobendahn stays at center for the departed Max Tuerk, along with Rodgers, with either of them capable of playing guard, Nico Falah will get time at center as he did a year ago when he started the Pac-12 championship game.

At guard, start with Damien Mama, who started all 14 games in the fall joined by Viane Talamaivao, who started the last eight. As with Banner, who needs to lose weight, and the 6-7, 290-pound Wheeler, who needs to keep it on, Mama and Talamaivao have to get themselves in the kind of shape they have yet to quite reach in their first two years here.

Sophomore Chuma Edoga will be pressing someone at tackle after his freshman play. He has a high ceiling but needs consistency. While Chris Brown has a start at guard from 2015 and he’ll be in the mix as well, pushing for playing time.

Redshirt freshman Cole Smith is another who could inject himself into the center scrum.

Then there's 6-foot-4, 330-pound senior Jordan Simmons, healthy for the first time and back full-time on offense. A deep team just got deeper -- and bigger.


Jordan Austin, So., T

Zach Banner, Sr., T

Chris Brown, So., G

Chuma Edoga, So., T

Nico Falah, Jr., C-T

Roy Hemsley, RFr., T

Clayton Johnston, RFr., T

Toa Lobendahn, Jr., C-G-T

Damien Mama, Jr., G

Khaliel Rodgers, Jr., C/G

Jordan Simmons, Sr., G

Cole Smith, RFr., C

Nathan Smith, Fr., T

Viane Talamaivao, Jr., G

Richie Wenzel, So., C

Chad Wheeler, Sr., T

First in a series of spring position previews for the 2016 Trojans. Next: The quarterbacks.

Here's the spring practice info:

*** The dates of USC’s 2016 spring football practices are: March 8-10-12-22-24-26-29-31-April 2-5-7-9-12-14-16.

*** Spring practice times: Tuesday and Thursday practices at 3:30 p.m., Saturday practices at 10 a.m. (except the April 16 Spring Game at 3 p.m.). All practices will be held on Howard Jones Field/Brian Kennedy Field on campus, except for two practices at the Coliseum (March 26 and the April 16 Spring Game).

*** All of USC spring practices will be open to the public for viewing from a designated area on the east side of Howard Jones Field (north of Goux’s Gate) or from the south stands at the Coliseum.

. *** USC's Spring Game will be Saturday, April 16, at 3 p.m. in the Coliseum. Tickets are $10 and can be purchased at the door (or online on USCTrojans.com).

*** USC's Pro Day is March 23 at 10 a.m. on Loker Stadium’s Cromwell Field. It is closed to the public.

You can follow me on Twitter at @dweber3440 or email me at weber@uscfootball.com.


USCFootball.com Top Stories