Nico Falah, USC's best replacement, has been irreplaceable

Nico Falah, USC's best replacement, has been irreplaceable
USC center Nico Falah (74) blocks an Arizona defensive lineman during the second half on Oct. 15. (Rick Scuteri / Associated Press)

When Khaliel Rodgers hobbled to the USC sideline during last season’s game against UCLA, the Trojans were on the brink of collapse. 

“That’s a big problem,” the ESPN announcer, Sean McDonough, said.

Rodgers was the third-string center. Playing a third-stringer is usually a worst-case scenario. A fourth-string player is supposed to be like meteorite insurance. A team shouldn't need it. If it does, it's got issues.

But now, with almost the whole game remaining against UCLA, on ran Nico Falah, USC's fourth-string center.


Falah squatted over the ball, pointed tentatively at the middle linebacker and forgot to say much.

"I'm not going to lie, the first play I was freaking out," Falah said at the time. "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?' "

Falah sent back a true snap and blocked his defender well enough. Then he did it again. By the end of the game, there hadn't been any drop off at all. Falah's performance had been commanding.

"I'll never forget for as long as I live the UCLA game, him stepping up," USC Coach Clay Helton said.

Falah, a redshirt junior, has been a savior for USC. He rescued the Trojans last season and did so again this season, when starting center Toa Lobendahn sustained two torn ligaments in his knee during the season opener. In six starts, Falah has been a forceful presence while avoiding major misfires with his snaps.

If he weren't needed at center, Falah probably would've filled in elsewhere. He has played all three positions on the line at USC, even though he was exclusively a tackle in high school.

"He's a gymnast," said Banner, USC's right tackle. "He can do anything on the field."

Falah was a latecomer to football. His father, Manzur, was from Colombia and tried unsuccessfully to introduce him to soccer. Falah's first love was basketball, and he went to Bellflower St. John Bosco High to play the sport.

An assistant football coach there noticed his size and asked him to try out for the team. Manzur encouraged him to join.

"You'll get to know a lot of people at St. John Bosco before the school year starts," Manzur reasoned.

The school annually produces high-level football recruits, but Falah's "athleticism and footwork was as good as anybody we've ever coached at that position," St. John Bosco Coach Jason Negro said. "Playing basketball allowed him to be able to do what he needed to do on the football field. It translated so well."

The late start in football made the transition to center at USC tricky. Compared with most of his teammates, who'd played for years, Falah's "football IQ was not very high," Manzur said.

Such a deficiency is hard to mask at center, where Falah is responsible for reading the defensive front. The rest of the line proceeds off his calls.

"You have to know everybody, everybody's assignment as a whole offensive line," Falah said.

Last season, against a constantly shifting UCLA defense, Banner said he would sometimes make a call instead of Falah.

But "that was last year," Banner said. "This year, it's all him."

Offensive coordinator Tee Martin said Falah has the freedom to make all of the calls.

"And if he's wrong, we're still right because we're following what he does," Martin said. "Once he got that confidence to know that, I think he settled into his own."

The intelligence and athleticism compensate for his size. At 6 feet 4 and 280 pounds, he is among USC's slimmest offensive linemen. He has played against several 300-pound defenders this season. None generated consistent penetration.

"He probably bench presses more than me," laughed left tackle Chad Wheeler, who is 6-6 and 310 pounds.

Falah said he expected to see significant playing time this season. But not this much. Only guard Viane Talamaivao has started more games. USC has flinched when confronting the possibility of Falah's absence.

Last game, against Arizona, Falah lost his helmet in a skirmish on the line. By rule, Falah was required to sit out one play unless the Trojans burned a timeout.

The Trojans burned a timeout.

Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand