Tro­jans look­ing for right combo

Los Angeles Times - - SPORTS - By Zach Helfand zach.helfand@la­times.com

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.

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