LOS ANGELES – In the past several weeks, USC Trojans spring practice sessions have had various storylines of competition, improvement and surprises, so when cardinal-and-gold fans come this Saturday afternoon to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for the annual USC spring game, they might want to check out a pair of sophomores in No. 34, inside linebacker Olajuwon Tucker, and No. 74, offensive left tackle Nico Falah.
Both Tucker and Falah have been pleasant spring surprises, and both have made statements to not only be in the mix for the 2015 season but in the rotation as well, a true testament to their motivation and coachability to make an impact on the team.
For Tucker, the current starting inside linebacker, he’s excited for Saturday’s showcase to illustrate to Trojans fans what the coaching staff has already seen as the temporary replacement for anticipated senior three-year starter Anthony Sarao, who has been held out of spring ball because of a foot injury.
Now that Tucker is starting in the spring game, is there any fear of stage fright setting in with legions of Trojans fans expected to be viewing Saturday’s proceedings?
“Coach preaches don’t get scared on the big stage and just keeping doing what we’ve been doing the whole four weeks prior to the spring game,” said Tucker, who was named by his father after Houston Rockets Hall of Fame center Hakeem Olajuwon. “That’s what we have to come out doing.”
And what Tucker has been doing in March and April is turning heads with his aggressive play on the inside.
“I feel very blessed and appreciated with the opportunity the coaches have given to me, and me just stepping up and really taking advantage of the opportunity given to me,” said Tucker, who is 6-foot 3 and 240 pounds of muscle.
Tucker seems to be driven to live up to the expectations born from an all-star high school career at Gardena (Calif.) Serra High, a school that has become a talent pipeline of sorts for Trojans football. Yet despite all his previous accomplishments, this gregarious athlete appreciates and is humbled by his current status with the Trojans.
“I feel very blessed and appreciated with the opportunity the coaches have given to me, and me just stepping up and really taking advantage of the opportunity given to me,” said Tucker, who also goes by “Boodah,” a nickname given to him by his godfather due to Olajuwon’s chubbiness as a baby.
Tucker is realistic in terms of the depth chart and playing time, yet he also understands he needs to continue to improve.
“I am just holding down for Anthony until he comes back and wishing him a speedy recovery. I am striving for consistent greatness, keep moving along, and competing very day,” Tucker said.
Tucker, whose older brother Tim played football for the Washington Huskies (2010-11), was a backup inside linebacker as a first-year freshman in 2014, appearing in seven games and recording three tackles along the way.
Tucker has seen improvement this spring and still understands he is a work in progress.
“I’ve definitely been competing and finishing every play and every tackle,” said Tucker, an international relations major with hopes of one day working alongside his longshoreman father at the Port of Long Beach. “I’ve been definitely working on my hands and getting my calls down on defense and getting the rest down on defense.”
As for backup offensive left tackle Falah, before spring ball it was sort of the trivia question of whatever happened to No. 74, that highly decorated lineman from Bellflower (California) St. John Bosco?
“The first year redshirting and the second year I was able to play, but I played about three games and was hurt a lot,” Falah said. “I wasn’t doing something right, so I had to change my everyday life regarding football, and I finally got it right and it was probably good for me.”
What was also good for Falah, a non-governmental organization major, was feeling positive about himself this spring, especially when backup center Khaliel Rodgers went down with an spring injury, which forced offensive line coach Bob Connelly to move starting left tackle Toa Lobendahn over to center, giving Falah an opening to show his stuff at left tackle.
“I got a couple of reps [at left tackle] actually at the beginning of spring when Khaliel [Rodgers] was still healthy,” Falah said after last Saturday’s Coliseum practice. “I think I just had some growing pains to get through, and I’d say probably this week was actually a good week to get my feet wet and go with the 'ones' every practice, so I feel good.”
And feeling good also means a boost to the ego, knowing that he can compete with and against his talented Trojan teammates.
“I’ve finally gained confidence and I programmed the plays and just confidence enough to come out here and to compete against the 'ones' out here on defense,” said the soft-spoken offensive lineman.
Falah sees gaining weight as the next step of improvement to his game and hopes to increase his mass by the time fall camp rolls around in early August.
“I am probably around 280 [pounds] right now and I came in at 250,” said Falah, who stands 6-foot-4. “I have really got my weight up upped and my strength upped. My goal is 290 because I think 280 is a little light right now. That’s my goal right now.”
Where would Falah also like to see his biggest improvement from now until the start of fall camp?
“Keep my confidence coming up and my strength is a big thing for me,” Falah said. “To keep increasing my strength in the weight room every day. I know it’s not enough for me, so getting in the extra work, the extra stuff.
Falah also credits first-year offensive line coach Bob Connelly for his continued improvement this spring.
“Oh yeah, Coach Connelly is a great line coach,” Falah said with a smile. “I enjoy him, being coached by him, and he has a lot of new tricks up his sleeve.”
Some of those new lineman tricks will be on display at Saturday’s spring game, which Falah has put into perspective.
“I hope to compete in the spring game and show the coaches I can compete against the 1s in a real live game situations,” Falah said.
For Falah and Tucker, it’s what the spring game and spring ball is all about – competition, competing and showcasing improvement.