by Garry Paskwietz
There were a lot of eyes this spring on new offensive line coach Neil Callaway, a hand-picked position coach by Clay Helton who has known Callaway since his days as a QB at the University of Houston when Callaway was coaching for Helton’s father, Kim.
And when it came time to select a coach to set tone of physicality and toughness on the USC offensive line, Helton wasted little time in tapping Callaway for the job. Callaway is as old-school as it comes in modern college football, a former offensive lineman who played for Bear Bryant at Alabama, and who had multiple stops in his coaching career in the SEC, along with a stint as head coach at UAB.
When Callaway got to USC he found a veteran group that showed potential establishing the run in games against UCLA, Cal and Colorado but struggled to get things going against Stanford and Wisconsin. The mantra from Helton in the off-season had been to focus on developing the physical mindset needed on both sides of the line, to be able to run the ball and stop the run.
Callaway used the spring practices to drill his players hard, making sure each player got it right before moving on to the next guy, and the head coach noticed the impact.
“When you go back and watch the film, they have more individual reps than any other group,” Helton said. “He is riding them like a good OL coach should do. That’s Neil Callaway building the toughness, the physicality. He just exudes those traits, and he truly believes that when you run the ball it takes away the will of your opponent. When you see us finish our competition period with a series of run plays, just running power, that’s where his mentality will carry over to the rest of the team. That mentality of saying “hey, we will run the ball when we want to”. That’s the only attitude I’ve ever known from him going back to college and it’s what I want to see here.”
True to his old-school roots, Callaway chooses to focus on the work that needs to be done rather than what has been accomplished in one spring session.
“We’ve got a ways to go,” Callaway said as the Trojans wrapped up spring drills last week. “I think overall the work has been good. The attitude has been good, there’s been a genuine effort and want-to. That’s a good start, and now we just have to get everybody smoothed out and playing as one.
“I do think we’ve made progress as a group. They’re starting to do some things together, and that’s important as an offensive line to have all five guys playing as one. We’re making calls, echoing calls better, which is important. Still not perfect by any means but I do think there has been progress in that area.”
The phrase “we’ve got a ways to go” is one that the USC coaches uniformly used to describe where things are at in terms of getting the team ready for the season. Helton is quick to point out that the team has 29 practices in the fall to help get them prepared, and Callaway knows what his priorities will be once the Trojans get back on the field.
“Communication,” Callaway said. “Being on the same page, recognizing what the defense is doing, using our eyes better to see what’s happening. Sometimes we play with blinders on, we’ve got to see things better.”
The communication issue is an interesting one for Callaway because his goal is to eventually have his players not need to talk at all once the calls has been made.
“It’s part of playing together,” Callaway said. “There are going to be calls made on every play, and that’s all I want to hear, I don’t want any conversation about anything else. That will be a critical part of executing, especially when we want to go fast, we have to make our calls and go, we don’t need any extra conversation.”
It will help in that communication to have such a veteran line-up. The Trojans return a pair of tackles in Chad Wheeler and Zach Banner who have a combined 60 games of starting experience. Wheeler has bulked up to 310 pounds this year and figures to be at left tackle while Banner sits solidly at 360 pounds as the projected right tackle.
“Zach still has a lot to work on mechanically, his footwork is the main thing,” Callaway sid. “He’s a bright young man, very charismatic, and he needs to stay focused sometimes better. I think Chad is handling the new weight well, he moves well, and I think he had a very productive spring.”
The interesting rotation has been at the two guard spots, where four players (Talamaivao, Mama, Brown, Simmons) saw a fairly even distribution of reps during spring, which Callaway acknowledged is not the ideal situation when you are trying to develop chemistry on the line.
“It’s been a long look because we’re trying to make some decisions,” Callaway said. “We’ve got four guys that are capable, I’m still not sure who the best two are yet, although I think Viane (Talamaivao) has done the best to this point, to be honest. He would be one right now but I still don’t know who the other one would be so we’re letting them compete. We do need to get it narrowed down at some point in time to get some better continuity, so we’ll make some decisions here before too long. I would say by the latest two weeks before the first game we need to get things settled.”
At center, the Trojans were without Toa Lobendahn and Khaliel Rodgers for spring due to injuries but both are expected back in the fall.
“I would say Nico (Falah) has done a nice job,” Callaway said. “I don’t know how it’s going to pan out because I haven’t seen Toa or Khaliel but Nico will certainly be in the mix, he’s done a nice job.”