By Johnny Curren
When USC faces Alabama inside AT&T Stadium on Saturday, no matchup is likely to draw more interest than the one that pits the Trojans offensive line against the Crimson Tide defensive front, and for good reason.
With USC breaking in a first-time starting quarterback in Max Browne, and Alabama returning some key talent from a defensive unit that led the nation with 53 total sacks last season, there’s little doubt that the Trojans will need Neil Callaway’s O-line corps to come up with a big performance for the cardinal and gold to have a chance in this one.
And with the group’s most experienced member, Chad Wheeler, able to contribute, at most, in a reserve role after having missed extensive practice time over the past month due to plantar fasciitis, it’s the player getting the start in his place at left tackle who figures to play an especially crucial part in this battle – Chuma Edoga.
But the 6-foot-4 sophomore isn’t exactly phased by the challenge. In fact, when Edoga made the decision to attend USC as a heralded recruit out of Powder Springs (Ga.) McEachern, this is precisely what he envisioned.
“This is exactly why I came to SC,” Edoga said, “to start in big games like this, and to have great opportunities like this.”
Of course, the situation at hand isn’t completely foreign to Edoga. As a true freshman right tackle last season he made his presence felt as an important backup, and he even started in games against Utah and Wisconsin.
What is new, however, is the position that he now finds himself lining up at.
“To be honest, this is the first time that I’ve played left tackle,” Edoga said. “In high school we had a left-handed quarterback, so I played right tackle the whole time.”
Making the move to the left side mid-way through fall camp, Edoga went through some initial growing pains, but he eventually settled in, bringing a quick end to the search for Wheeler’s replacement.
“I feel pretty comfortable right now,” Edoga said. “At first I wasn’t real comfortable. I had to get used to it in the first couple of practices, but after that I was straight, and I was able to hold my own. It’s just a little different – my feet and hands are reversed and stuff like that.”
But practice is one thing, and protecting Browne’s blindside from a vaunted Alabama pass rush is another, and no one knows exactly how Edoga will perform against the likes of Crimson Tide outside linebackers Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson, as well as defensive end Jonathan Allen, until the opening whistle blows and he actually goes head-to-head with those players.
To his credit, Edoga isn’t taking them likely.
“They’re some of the best guys in the country, some of the best competitors,” Edoga said. “We’ve got to step up to their level, and play hard and physical.”
It’s that component of physicality that Edoga’s position coach, Callaway, has made a point of hammering home to his players since the moment he arrived on campus last January, and Edoga believes that it’s had a lasting impact.
“Coach Callaway is really hard-nosed,” Edoga said. “I feel like ever since he got here, my game and my physicality just stepped up. That’s what we’re working on each and every day.”
More than that, Edoga also appears to now possesses the muscle to back up that mindset. Having placed an emphasis on bulking up this past offseason, he packed on 20 pounds.
“That was a real focus for me – to get stronger and bigger,” Edoga said. “Last year I was playing at around 270, and right now I’m like 290. Hopefully I can get to 295 and hold that during the season. I feel a lot stronger. I feel like I can hold my own more on the field now.”
Edoga was able to show off the progress that he’s made, both physically and mentally, throughout fall camp as he took rep-after-rep with the No. 1 group, performing well enough to gain the trust of his head coach.
“I have no reservations,” Helton said. “I think Chuma is going to be a very, very talented individual. For him to do what he did last year as a true freshman, and now as a sophomore he’s even more advanced [and] stronger. He’s always had great feet, his knowledge of the game and football instincts are terrific. We’re very fortunate here.”
Having done everything he could throughout the past eight months in order to get ready for the task at hand, Edoga, as well as those around him, obviously believe that he’s up for the challenge. The only thing left is for him to go out and prove it. And if he does, and the rest of the USC offensive line follows suit with a strong outing, a victory for the Trojans certainly isn’t out of the realm of possibility on Saturday.
“It would be huge,” Edoga said. “I could brag a little bit, coming out here to the West Coast, and we went down there and beat an SEC team, that would be something I could talk about.”