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Falah had worked his way from fourth string to center of attention at bowl-bound USC

Falah had worked his way from fourth string to center of attention at bowl-bound USC
USC center Nico Falah looks to the sideline for a call during a game against Texas at the Coliseum on Sept. 16. (Shotgun Spratling / Los Angeles Times)

As a four-star offensive tackle recruit at Bellflower St. John Bosco High, Nico Falah could have written his own ticket to college.

“I had a bunch of offers,” he said.

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He took the one from USC — then realized it was a mistake almost immediately.

“It really wasn’t working out here,” Falah said after Monday’s practice, the No. 8 Trojans’ second-to-last workout at USC before next week’s Cotton Bowl showdown against No. 5 Ohio State. “There were a lot of great guys in front of me. All-Americans.”

Two, in fact, in Zach Banner and Chad Wheeler, who both graduated to the NFL. So Falah considered looking for a new school, then decided to look for a new position instead.

He eventually settled on center, where he has become a two-year starter and the signal-caller for the Trojans’ offensive line.

“He’s just been a rock for our offensive line,” USC coach Clay Helton said. “His athleticism shines. So functional with the ball in his hands.

“He could play all three positions if needed.”

For Falah during his first three years at USC, just getting to play one would have sufficed. Instead he redshirted his first year, saw brief action in three games the next season, then started 2015 playing primarily on special teams.

Not exactly what he had he mind after a high school career in which he made 10 all-star teams as a senior.

“There’s always that feeling of having a chip on my shoulder being the fourth-string guy,” he said. “Never playing, it fueled my fire and made me a better player.”

His break finally came in 2015 against UCLA at the Coliseum. The Trojans’ top two centers were sidelined because of injuries, forcing guard Khaliel Rodgers to play there out of necessity. So when Rodgers got hurt, Falah said he heard someone on the USC sideline yell, “Run in, you’re in.”

So he grabbed his helmet and spent the rest of the day battling to a draw Kenny Clark, who would go on to be a first-round pick in the NFL draft. Falah has been the starting center ever since.

“When you get to this level and you’re dealing with such elite athletes and guys that have been heavily recruited, it doesn’t happen for everyone Day 1,” Helton said. “Sometimes it doesn’t happen Day 101. Sometimes it’s your third or fourth year.

“In Nico’s case, he was one of those guys that made the most of [it] when his opportunity came. He always prepared like he was a starter even when he was fourth string.”

Which isn’t to say there wasn’t a transition. Because the center calls out the blocking schemes for the rest of the line, Falah had to learn the responsibilities, strengths and weaknesses of his linemates.

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That education, both Falah and Helton said, has made him better.

“That’s what being a Trojan’s all about. We’ve all been through adversity,” said senior wideout Steven Mitchell Jr., who has come back from two knee injuries. “Nico’s a special kid.

“And he worked his butt off to get where he’s at.”

So has USC.

In Falah’s first year, the Trojans finished third in the Pac-12 South and played Fresno State in the Las Vegas Bowl. This year they’re the Pac-12 champions and are playing in a major bowl game against a top-five opponent with a chance to win 12 games for the first time since 2008.

“My class was one of the big classes to making a turning point in USC, bringing back its glory,” Falah said. “It’s a huge jump and we’re proud about it.”

Falah could say the same about himself.

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