Let him count all the ways this season is different for junior center Nico Falah.
He's "bigger," and "stronger" and "a lot more confident," Nico says, now at 6-foot-5 and 288 pounds. He'd struggled to make 280 last year.
But "I've had a great offseason" the Hermosa Beach guy by way of St. John Bosco says. "Our new nutritionist, Andrea [Vanderwoude] is really good."
The secret? "A lot more meals," Nico says, sounding like that's not really a secret. "I eat when I'm not hungry."
And now that he's set at center after moving there from tackle to get the start in the Pac-12 championship game against Stanford as USC's fourth center of the season (after injuries sidelined Max Tuerk, Toa Lobendahn and Khaliel Rodgers), he's still there.
That's after a quite respectable emergency performance against the Cardinal while Max is off to the NFL and Khaliel has moved over to defense.
Someone will have to alert the USC media guide, which still has Nico at tackle -- and still at 280. He's no longer that guy.
"It's a huge difference," Nico says, when you come in thinking you're one of the guys. And at center, with Toa Lobendahn finishing up his rehab return this summer, Nico is more than that. He has been running with the ones much of the summer and now shares the position with the versatile Toa.
And just in time for a summer unlike any in recent years.
"There's a lot more leadership," he says, singling out many of the fourth-year guys who came in with him like quarterback Max Browne. Zach Banner is there as well, of course, for the fifth-year guys on offense.
But it's the way the player-run practices were handled that made the difference, he says. "Last year our PRP's weren't as serious. This year the guys are much more vocal, there's much more intensity."
And then there's what he sees in more than just himself:
"The guys are stronger," he says. "You see Coach Helton in the weight room. We've taken it to another level there."
The amount of 11 on 11, it's actually most of what they're doing in the PRP's, has changed where they've finished up offensively.
"We know the playbook pretty well." The only installation when practice starts Thursday, Nico says, will be "if the coaches have some new things they want to add -- which I'm sure they will."
One other noticeable change. No bad snaps this summer, or very, very few.
"We're working on it," Nico says, "getting it down to perfection,"
Another noticeable addition to the offense is the amount of run plays that have the center pulling. "We have athletes," says Nico, who also played basketball for Bosco. "Me and Toa, we can pull. We can move."
And yes, even against a front as highly touted as Alabama, this will be a "run-first" offense, Nico says. "That's the plan."
There's another part of that plan, he says. "Physicality is our buzz word . . . It's the watchword for our offense."
It's what they've been hearing Day 1 on from O-line coach Neil Callaway -- the importance of the battle at the line of scrimmage.
"If we can run it, we can compete with anybody," Nico says, quoting his coach. That's the plan.
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