It’s been a long road, but USC redshirt-sophomore offensive lineman Nico Falah finally received the chance he’s been waiting for last Saturday when he found himself thrust into a crucial role for the Trojans in their annual crosstown clash with UCLA.
With Khaliel Rodgers heading to the sideline early with a high ankle sprain, Falah, USC’s fourth-string center, filled in at the position for a majority of the contest, more than holding his own against a Bruins defensive line that was headlined by one of the Pac-12’s most feared performers in the trenches, Kenny Clark.
Falah looked surprisingly at home throughout the 40-21 Trojans victory, even if he didn’t necessarily feel that way right from the outset.
"I’m not going to lie, the first play I was freaking out," said Falah, who had played sparingly throughout his career up until that point. "I was a little nervous. Zach [Banner] even told me on the sideline, 'Nico, you didn’t say anything on the first play. What’s up?' I tried to calm down, and the guys got me calmed down, and it all worked out."
What made Falah’s performance especially impressive is that he has really only been lining up at center for about five weeks now. Normally a tackle, who has also lined up at guard, the Bellflower (Calif.) St. John Bosco product actually attempted to make the move to center a year ago under the tutelage of former USC offensive line coach Tim Drevno, with negative results.
"I snapped last year for like a week with Coach Drevno, but that didn’t work out well, so I moved back to tackle," said Falah, who stands 6-foot-4 and 285 pounds. "The snapping was a problem."
But with 2014 first team All-Pac-12 center Max Tuerk going down against Washington with a torn ACL, and the No. 2 option, Toa Lobendahn, knocked out with the same injury against Utah, current USC offensive line coach Bob Connelly had no choice but to give Falah another shot for depth purposes following the Trojans’ victory against the Utes.
This time around the transition has gone smoother -- so much so that by the time he was called into action against UCLA, Falah was able to step in and produce, giving him a new lease on life within the Trojans program.
"It’s definitely a huge opportunity that I’m trying to take advantage of," Falah said. "I’ve been praying for this every night, hoping for this since I came to SC, and it finally came last week. I was very happy about it."
Falah knows that he’s anything but a finished product. Spending extra time working on his snaps, he’s routinely been one of the last players to leave Brian Kennedy-Howard Jones Field following practice.
"Snaps are always a big thing for me -- working on that before practice and after practice," Falah said. "I’d say that’s my biggest focus -- snaps and knowing the play calls."
With Rodgers’ status still up in the air for Saturday’s Pac-12 Championship Game matchup with a Stanford team that features a defensive front noted for its physicality, Falah has been more focused than ever this week, so if he is called upon again, he’ll be up for the challenge. Just like he was last weekend.
"I’m preparing like I’ve been preparing for the last couple of weeks," Falah said. "I always prepare like I’m a starter. I do extra film with Khaliel and Coach Connelly. And against UCLA it worked out, but we’ll see how Khaliel is. Hopefully he’s able to go, but if they need me, I’ll be ready."