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Mix-n-match O-line limps to spring finish

The injuries are piling up for a rehab-reduced USC O-line where three veteran returning starters will not finish spring. And Nico Falah, above, may be about to switch positions.

If there were a real game instead of the Spring Game April 15, USC would be doing some scrambling along the offensive line right now.

Although maybe not so much as it might at first appear with the news that three-year starter Viane Talamaivao had to have surgery Tuesday for a torn biceps as a result of his elbow injury last week. He'll be out into the summer, hoping to be back for all 29 August camp practices after a return for the summer player run practices, Clay Helton said.

But Nico Falah, who is being held out of practice to protect a herniated disc in his back that will not require surgery, says "if there were a game today, I could go."

The question is: what position -- his old center spot or his older tackle spot?

"We're exploring that," Nico said of a meeting that he had with Clay and the USC trainers last week about whether a position on the edge of the O-line would be better for the relatively lean, 6-foot-4, 287-pound Falah in more of an open space than having to block the likes of the low-slung nose guards lined up right on his helmet in the close quarters at center.

"I love center," Nico said after starting the final 12 games there in 2016. "I'm doing some right tackle work right now . . . but we have to see what's better for the team . . . and my health . . . I don't mind moving."

He will be in the final five-man group that starts and if he's at tackle, he'll aim to play at 295, he says.

"I'm trying to take more of a leadership role as a senior," so moving away from center hurts that a bit, Nico figures. But there are other ways to do that.

One way is to mentor 6-foot-6-plus, 305-pound early entry freshman Andrew Vorhees, who moved into Viane's right guard spot on the first team Tuesday. "I like him a lot," Nico says. "He's going to be a really good player. I'm taking him under my wing. He's a really good guy."

But if Nico is not at center, the nod as a veteran goes to Toa Lobendahn (6-4, 290), who like Nico, has played every position on the line. Clay calls it "double-training," something USC is doing with both Vorhees and redshirt sophomore Roy Hemsley (6-6, 315), who has also been switching from tackle to guard.

And for Toa, who is almost back from his ACL surgery with full clearance expected right after spring practice, it was a moment of some progress for him Tuesday. It was Toa's first time out in a helmet as he works on his snapping.

So with Toa out, the center who has benefited from the opportunity is redshirt sophomore Cole Smith, a snapper with excellent technique but after an illness, down to 278 pounds on his 6-4 frame. "It's a great chance to get better," Cole says. "And every practice I am getting better."

And as a group, on a day when the offense ran no-huddle tempo -- mostly to get the defense ready for it -- they pointed to how this much smaller USC O-line might be called upon to play with just one starter above 300 pounds and the rest at 290 or so.

"As a whole, we're in a lot better shape," Nico says of this group although even with last year's big guys, "one of the things we were so productive in was our two-minute drill," Clay says of the Washington and Penn State games. "One of the things you're doing is playing athletically and wearing people down." Which USC did last fall.

USC has always had the ability to go tempo, Clay said. But maybe there'll be more of that for this team with a veteran quarterback who is able to handle it.

"It's a challenge when you're in there for eight plays in a row," Cole says. But also the way to get better. Which after all, is what spring is all about.

"You'd like to have 10, you're going to hope for eight and start the best five," O-line coach Neil Callaway says. "We're going to work at it every day. And we look forward to finishing up these last five days."


USC's Thursday practice will still start at 3:15 but will be in the Coliseum. The public is still permitted to attend practice and sit in the South stands but parking in the Coliseum lots may be iffy . . . Cam Smith (neck) and Daniel Imatorbhebhe returned to practice as did Ronald Jones (turf toe). "It feels great," RoJo said of the orthotic fitted to his toe and his new Nike shoes before the coaches pulled him out when someone stepped on his toe. . . Josh Imatorbhebhe said that his illness absence the first two weeks was a result of ulcerative colitis that caused him to lose a good bit of weight . . . Big test for USC's placekicking game was aced by Michael Brown who drove all five kickoffs into and for two of them through the end zone -- with the wind at his back -- while hitting them as deep as eight yards into the end zone on the fly and as short as two yards into the end zone. He also hit all five FG attempts finishing with a 47-yarder into the wind . . . Here's Falah's take on freshman nose tackle Marlon Tuipulotu: "He doesn't play like a freshman . . . he's so impressive." . . . Matt Fink threw as good a 45-yard ball as he has since he's been at USC -- an on the money one-on-one drill bomb to a diving Tyler Vaughns for a completion inside the 5 at the sidelines. But he said the credit was not his. "Tyler makes me look good," Matt said, while admitting that the weight work is paying off and his shoulder and core strength are definitely improved . . . For play-by-play of today's practice, check out: TUESDAY SPRING DAY 10 GHOST NOTES:

You can follow me on Twitter at @dweber3440 or email me at

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