Trojans looking for right combo
With three starters to replace, USC’s revamped offensive line attempts to find a harmonious blend.
Life on the offensive line is marked by cadence, timing and rhythm — snap, step, hit. USC’s rhythm is all encompassing. It strums through walls and seeps under doors. Linemen hear the melody when they fall asleep and when they wake in the morning.
The tune is bluesy, a little country, and it lilts at odd hours through the apartment complex most of the linemen share, from an acoustic guitar strummed by the Trojans’ left guard, Chris Brown.
USC must replace three starting linemen from a season ago, and inserting newcomers requires more than individual skill. All five must march to the same beat.
“Five got to play as one,” offensive line coach Neil Callaway said. “If the five don’t play as one, we’re not very good.”
Nothing goes so far as live game action, but Callaway said that relationships count. Communication counts. The unit is not that different from a jazz quintet, with solos and joint riffs taking turns and working together.
“The closer you are to people off the field,” guard Viane Talamaivao said, “naturally you’ll be more in tune on the field.”
The tune that binds USC is Brown’s. Three of USC’s other probable starters — Talamaivao, Toa Lobendahn and Nico Falah — live in the apartment next to him. Brown hopes to become a professional musician or producer, and he usually plays his guitar for hours each day. His teammates hear him playing at odd times.
“Our walls are pretty thin,” Brown said. “Sometimes I don’t notice. I’ll just get in the zone and start jamming.”
Last year, Lobendahn and Brown slept on the same floor, and “I used to just wake up and be like, ‘Oh yeah. He’s jamming out right now,’ ” Lobendahn said.
Lobendahn, who used to play the piano regularly, has played with Brown once or twice.
The linemen have searched for other ways to meld during the summer. The unit lost tackles Chad Wheeler and Zach Banner and guard Damien Mama to the NFL. How well the newcomers adjust, and how quickly the unit learns to work in concert, is one of USC’s most pressing concerns.
Talamaivao, Lobendahn and Falah are experienced. “Everything works smoother when they’re in there,” coach Clay Helton said. Lobendahn and Falah are competing for the center role, and the other could move to tackle.
But Brown, Chuma Edoga (at right tackle) and Clayton Johnston (competing for left tackle) don’t have many starts among them.
So the line has launched efforts to bond. They have usually revolved around food. During the summer they cased local Korean barbecue joints or all-you-caneat buffets where “everybody’s staring at you,” Lobendahn said, and no one could keep count of how much poundage was consumed.
“That place is getting robbed though for sure,” Talamaivao said. “You charge us 20 bucks a person? We’re clearing out at least — at least — $400 worth of food. And upwards of $500. That’s a light day.”
But, as Talamaivao put it, “we’re not rich or anything,” so they limited the excursions to once or twice a month. More often, Brown’s melodies bound the group.
Brown started playing 11 years ago. At first he imitated his father’s favorite classic rock songs before teaching himself blues and country. He was hooked because, he said, “there’s so much freedom.”
He wants to play gigs for listeners other than his teammates. Once, he and his younger sister played an open mic night at The Venice Whaler. She sang Ed Sheeran’s “No Diggity.” He provided the instrumentals.
“What else did we do? She has a bunch of hipster songs that I don’t really listen to,” Brown said. “But I just played the chords, so.”
Last December, USC had him play “Rudolph the RedNosed Reindeer,” dressed in a Christmas sweater, for the team’s Instagram page. He wanted to play a more technically demanding version of the tune but didn’t have enough time to learn all of its shapes and contours.
Teammates suspect he wouldn’t have had trouble with it if he’d just kept playing.
“It’s funny because we’ll play a song, and he’ll just be able to play it right away. He’s got that gift,” quarterback Sam Darnold said.
“You guys should see him play one day,” Darnold added. “He’s pretty amazing.”
Brown did, in fact, offer a demonstration. He sat down in the shade a few hours before practice this week and jumped into a number. As he played, he moved his mouth as if he were speaking quietly to the frets. The song was soft and felt a little sad. After he finished, he was asked whose it was.
No one’s, he said. He just made it up.
Then he freestyled two more on the spot: One classic 12-bar blues — his favorite — and another countryinspired song in a minor key.
Brown also plays blues harmonica and piano, though he never mentioned this during an interview. He later said, only, “I dabble.” Two years ago, before a game at Colorado, a USC staffer walked into the hotel lobby to find a piano and a man playing it alone. She thought it was a nice treat, to see such a skilled musician riffing for anyone to hear. When she got closer, she realized it was Brown.
When Brown is freestyling, Darnold said, “He doesn’t like to open his eyes. He just kind of feels it.”
The quarterback is cool with his linemen jamming together on the field. But only if they feel it with their eyes open.