Thursday, it was announced that starting center Toa Lobendahn will miss the rest of the season with a torn ACL and MCL. While this is a big blow to a USC offensive line that struggled against Alabama, the damage it could do to Lobendahn’s career is far worse. Lobendahn sat out the second half of last season with the same injury and everyone around the USC program is hoping he can make a full recovery and put these injury issues behind him. That being said, USC’s loss of its starting center is a terrible break. Depth is vitally important on both lines and this injury could impact the defense as well as the offense if any further injuries occur.
Replacing Lobendahn in the immediate future is not a concern, but the impact on USC’s offensive line depth is significant. Center is the most important position on the line and this has been a problem position for USC over the past few years. Nico Falah is going to step in as a capable replacement for Lobendahn, but expecting him to match Lobendahn’s production would be foolish. Falah had the starting job for most of the summer and part of fall camp but it is telling that Lobendahn was able to win the job as soon as he fully recovered from his previous injury. Falah is a good offensive lineman who played exceptionally well in his limited time last season, but there is no question that Lobendahn is the superior player.
The biggest impact of Lobendahn’s injury is the impact it will have on the Trojans’ depth. Falah and Cole Smith are expected to hold down the center position for hopefully the rest of the season, but if any more injuries occur, USC may see a significant decline in the offensive line’s performance. Coming into the season, the Trojans had the most depth in years at each offensive line position. Losing perhaps the best lineman on the team after just one game is a huge step backwards in that regard. Lobendahn is an extremely versatile player that could play upwards of four positions in the event of injury. If Viane Talamaivao or Chris Brown were to get injured, Lobendahn could have slid in at either guard spot as a more than adequate replacement with Falah manning the center spot. Now, USC does not have the flexibility that Lobendahn provided and this could be significant if another one of the starters goes down.
Although Clay Helton has said that Falah and Smith will be the team’s centers, Khaliel Rodgers could be forced to move back to offense if one of those two are injured. That would be a significant loss for the defense where Rodgers is currently the backup nose tackle behind Stevie Tu’ikolovatu. The defensive line is USC’s least experienced position group and if the depth begins to erode, the Trojans could be facing a defensive crisis. Rodgers is a big body that can be a solid space eater in the center of the defensive line and losing him could have a tangible impact on the defense’s performance. Tu’ikolovatu would be forced to increase the snaps he is asked to play, while Noah Jefferson may also be forced to move to NT in a limited capacity. The Trojans would then be giving snaps to young players such as Christian Rector or Kevin Scott at the DT position in Jefferson’s stead. Relying on third and fourth string players to play meaningful snaps for a position unit that is already one of the weakest on the team could be disastrous.
The loss of Lobendahn impacts the Trojans three fold: USC is losing its best center while the offensive and defensive line depth are one step closer to having a debilitating injury crisis. The Trojans’ offensive line was woeful against Alabama and the loss of its starting center will be difficult to overcome. Luckily, USC has its easiest game of the season today against Utah State, but if the Trojans want to emerge victorious against Stanford and Utah, the offensive line will need to be in sync. Bedding in a new center will be a challenge, but USC’s veteran offensive lineman such as Zach Banner, Chad Wheeler, and Viane Talamaivao will need to step up around Nico Falah. Losing Lobendahn after a brutal loss against Alabama is a difficult situation to overcome, but USC has the talent to do so. The Trojans now have one week to devise a plan as to how Lobendahn can be adequately replaced. If this is not accomplished, USC could be looking at a 1-3 start to the season.
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