For the better part of four years, Ryan Kalil was a pillar of strength and leadership as a center for the USC Trojans. As a freshman Kalil was a backup to Norm Katnik. Kalil became the starting center for the next three years. He was such a fixture on the offensive line, it was difficult to envision someone else at center.
The Search for a Successor
Throughout this past spring and summer a search for Kalil's replacement was
in motion. The likely candidates were Nick Howell, Jeff Byers and Matt Spanos.
With just a couple of weeks of fall camp training, Kristofer O'Dowd wasn't
really a consideration to start. Byers was more comfortable in the left guard
position. Nick Howell competed for the starting position. However, when Howell
went down to injury, Spanos became the number one guy. In fact, Spanos was
listed as the starting center at the end of Fall Camp. All seemed to be in
Then in a freak injury, days before the start of the season, Spanos injured his triceps muscle and was to be sidelined for weeks. What was considered to be a strength for the Trojans, the offensive line, was now riddled with question marks.
In a day, Coach Carroll claimed Jeff Byers would move over to center and O'Dowd would back him up. Surely, a national championship caliber team can't have a true freshman start at the critical center position. Then, abruptly, Carroll made an about face and kept Byers at the guard position and named O'Dowd the starting center. He thought it would be more efficient to have just one position switch instead of two.
O'Dowd received mixed reviews on his first game at center. He had misread a couple plays and some linemen stated there was a some confusion on his play calls. However, he didn't falter and in fact, quickly solidified his role as center. O'Dowd made quick strides. The line had made necessary adjustments and the Trojans were on a roll, easily handling a tough Nebraska team in Lincoln then handily disposed of Washington State.
In the fourth game, an unusual play transpired that saw both O'Dowd and right guard Chilo Rachal go down with injury. An unfortunate mishap for O'Dowd, which required minor surgery and left him on the sideline to recover.
Re-enter, Matt Spanos
Matt Spanos had just been cleared to play days before the Washington game. Spanos figured to relieve O'Dowd and maybe get in a few plays to get his game legs back for the future. Since O'Dowd was sidelined with injury, Spanos was immediately called into action and played most of the game. Replacing O'Dowd on the spot.
How do the Trojans manage last minute line changes? Spanos explains it this way: "Coach Ruel likes to make the offensive line interchangeable. Obviously, we weren't prepared for Kris (O'Dowd) to go down at that very moment, but we were prepared to throw somebody in there. Myself, then Tiny (Alatini Malu) went in there later. Then Tiny went down and Zach (Heberer) went in there and Zach did a great job finishing the game. So I think us being able to be interchangeable really helps. I think we were pretty prepared for it."
Starting Off with a Blip
On Spanos' first snap from center, the quarterback exchange misfired and there was a fumble. Was this a sign of things to come? Matt Spanos took responsibility for the missed snap, "That was an accident. The hinge on my elbow brace caught the hinge on my knee brace, it was just an accident, not Booty's fault, I take full blame for that." As it turns out that was the only miscue for the rest of the game for Spanos.
This Saturday, Spanos will start his first game of the season at center. What are the coaches' expectations for the offensive line? According to Spanos, "I think, as far as the coaches go, they obviously have expectations out of all of us, they want us to perform our best, and obviously do whatever it takes to get us to that point. These guys can teach us everything in the world but for us to concentrate and focus enough to be able to do it. I think those expectations are shared by the players as well."
Like Kristofer O'Dowd before him, Spanos takes his responsibility seriously and has the confidence and maturity of a veteran starter. SCPlaybook will cover his progress in the coming games.