USC junior offensive lineman Damien Mama stepped back into a familiar place that he hadn’t seen in a while on Saturday afternoon. When the Trojans got into practice, Mama wasn’t standing on the sideline when the offense took the field, he was back in the starting lineup at left guard.
After starting 12 of 13 games at guard last season, Mama spent the offseason running with the second string after Chris Brown had a strong spring. The two entered fall camp battling for the starting spot, but Brown was given the first opportunities with the first team.
That changed on Saturday when Mama moved back into that familiar spot he hadn’t seen this offseason. But the question is can he maintain his current lead on Brown?
“[The competition has] been good,” Mama said earlier this week. “It's just been getting better every day and just working. It's not really thinking about the whole position, the whole ones and twos type of thing. It's just using every rep to my advantage.”
Instead of focusing on trying to beat out Brown, Mama is working to beat his own performance from the day before, the series before, even the snap before. He said he hasn’t really focused on the competition because this is a new experience for him.
“I don't really think about it because I'm not used to thinking about it,” Mama said. “Coaches are saying the best five will play out there, so I've just got to play my best.”
When Brown took over the starting job in the spring, Mama said there was no sit-down conversation with the coaches to explain what he needed to do to earn the position back. The coaches just told him he had to work. Nothing was going to be given to him because he had started before. Instead, Mama needed to prove that he deserved the job.
“I think it's a great competition between two elite players,” head coach Clay Helton said when asked what Mama needed to do to solidify himself as the starter. “Both of them are vying for that starting spot. I've talked to Damien. Such a physical presence and great talent, but the one thing that, as I've told him, is the consistency of doing his assignment right.
“Right now, he's about five out of every six doing them right. We've got to get that sixth play where he's assignment sound, but when he knows exactly what to do with no hesitation, he's a really talented player. But being assignment sound would be the biggest thing.”
Some players may struggle when losing their starting role and being thrown into a competition. It can kill a player’s confidence. But a competitive position battle can also bring out another level of play from a player. New offensive line coach Neil Callaway has ridden Mama hard at times, but he has been pushing all of his players to get the best out of them.
Though his coach has been tough on him, Mama is thankful to have Callaway.
“It's been awesome. It's been awesome. Coach is always hard on us. He always wants the best out of us. He wants us to be competitors every day. Put our helmets on and just work every day.”
Mama continues to be the same happy-go-lucky person, but he knows he has to grind if he wants to be on the field when the Trojans open the season against Alabama.
“I just have to work. There's a lot that I needed to work on this offseason. It's something that I can put forth with every rep that I get this fall camp. I'm just taking it one [rep] at a time.”
One of the things, Mama continues to work on is his body. Three hundred ninety-seven pounds when he entered USC, he weighed in at 359 during camp last fall and has since shed more than 30 pounds. Weighing in at 325 pounds this fall, Mama looks like a completely different person than he did in high school.
He feels a lot different as well. The weight loss has made him physically and mentally more fit.
“My mindset throughout practices is a lot clearer. I can read plays easier. I'm not tired and I move a lot faster. My knees are thanking me. Coaches say I look good. I'm just trying to play.”
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