The errant snap would live on in infamy. It was third and long, early in the third quarter last year, and USC was shutting out California when Toa Lobendahn, the Trojans’ much-maligned center, sent a snap soaring over his quarterback’s head.
The ball was flung so far that it landed a dozen yards behind the line of scrimmage, before rolling into USC’s end zone.
The wild sequence resulted in a safety, but proved far more damaging than that. USC fell apart from there, giving up 15 unanswered points and eventually losing to Cal for the first time in 15 years. In defeat, USC coach Clay Helton defended Lobendahn, referring to him as “one of the loves of my life.”
The botched exchange — and botched half that followed it — would come to represent more than a single glaring mistake. It was indicative of larger issues for USC and its offensive line last season, issues it carried through the spring, into the summer, and all the way through fall camp.
A year removed from that collapse, those issues up front have largely faded away. As USC (6-4, 5-2) heads to Cal on Saturday, its offensive line has been a model of consistency in an inconsistent season.
But in a matchup that conjures bad memories at the position, USC coincidentally must break in a new center. Brett Neilon, who started every game so far, is expected to miss the rest of the regular season with a calf strain, thus thrusting redshirt freshman Justin Dedich into the lineup.
The two centers had been in a close competition through fall camp, with Neilon narrowly edging out Dedich. Offensive line coach Tim Drevno said this week that the decision ultimately came down to experience and maturity. At the time, Helton told Dedich to prepare like a starter because his time would eventually come.
Then, in the third quarter against Arizona State last week, Neilon was sidelined. Dedich stepped in cold, and the Trojans had their only scoring drive of the second half.
“There was just no panic, amongst our staff,” Helton said. “We knew he was ready. He goes out there and there was no lack of production. That’s the type of player he is.”
Last season, as Lobendahn dealt with snap issues on a weekly basis and Helton faced constant questioning, that panic was a consistent visitor. This year, even as Neilon sits out, there’s full confidence that exchange will be executed smoothly.
For quarterback Kedon Slovis, who started the season as a backup, Dedich was actually the center he most often snapped with through camp. It would take only a few days of practice for the two to snap back into their snap routine.
The more pertinent question is how Dedich might fit in the middle of an offensive line that hasn’t replaced anyone because of injury this season.
“The O-line is a big chemistry-based unit,” Dedich said, “so me stepping in there might’ve been a little off at first.”
Cal faces its own potential offensive shakeup this week. Quarterback Chase Garbers is finally cleared to return, but there’s no word on whether he’ll replace former UCLA backup Devon Modster, who started three of the Golden Bears’ last four games. Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast said this week that USC would prepare as if both quarterbacks would play.
Where USC’s offensive line finally faces its first injury questions this week, its backfield should return at least one of its trio of injured backs. Stephen Carr is expected to join freshman Kenan Christon in the backfield after missing three weeks. He might be joined by Vavae Malepeai, who has sat out the past month and remains a game-time decision.
Carr’s return, at the very least, should allow USC to lean on the run a bit more than in recent weeks, when Christon wore down in the second half. Against a Cal defense that has stymied most opposing Pac-12 passers, extending drives on the ground behind its new center will be crucial.
That thought might have troubled the Trojans a season ago. But after taking special care to log every center-quarterback exchange this offseason, addressing its snap issues head-on, even a new center isn’t much cause for concern.