LOS ANGELES — Southern California left tackle Toa Lobendahn might be the perfect player to neutralize the multiple pressures and looks Texas will use Saturday under new defensive coordinator Todd Orlando.
Lobendahn has played practically everywhere for the No. 4 Trojans, with multiple starts at every position on the offensive line except right tackle. Head coach Clay Helton said Lobendahn’s previous experience in calling and setting protections as a center will be especially valuable this week in recognizing the Longhorns’ unusual blitz packages.
“You kind of play the play in your mind before it even starts,” Helton said.
That understanding was evident in an emphatic 42-24 win over No. 19 Stanford, as Lobendahn and the offensive line helped quarterback Sam Darnold throw for 316 yards and USC run for 307 yards. Getting 250 yards passing and 250 yards rushing is the desired result every time USC takes the field, and quarterbacks coach Tyson Helton credited the offensive line for exceeding those goals.
“I can’t say enough about the O-line,” Tyson Helton said. “I mean, you talk about the running backs and Sam and all that, but, really, the reason is the O-line. They made it all go, run game and pass game.”
For Lobendahn, the performance was all the sweeter after suffering major knee injuries in each of the previous two seasons. Lobendahn tore the ACL in his left knee midway through 2015, and then tore the ACL and MCL in his right knee in the opener against Alabama last season.
Nico Falah, who replaced Lobendahn at center last season, was impressed by the tenaciousness of his best friend in attacking rehabilitation for a second straight year.
“I don’t know how he went through it,” Falah said. “It was tough for me as his friend.”
Lobendahn wouldn’t say his recovery was easier the second time around, but he did benefit from knowing what the process would entail. By spring practices, Lobendahn’s right knee was back to full strength. The redshirt junior was able to participate in voluntary workouts over the summer without any trepidation, and his performance in USC’s first two games shows no loss of athleticism.
On one memorable play against Stanford, Lobendahn got four yards upfield on a zone run. But left guard Chris Brown had already mauled two Cardinal defenders, leaving Lobendahn blocking a linebacker as running back Stephen Carr burst through the massive hole for a 52-yard gain.
Lobendahn isn’t built like a prototypical tackle, instead excelling through his combination of technique, fitness and football intelligence.
All those attributes will be tested by Longhorns linebacker Malik Jefferson. Jefferson has yet to record a sack or tackle for loss this season, but leads the team with 16 tackles.
Lobendahn met Jefferson last summer as counselors at a high school camp in Oregon, giving him an understanding of Jefferson’s remarkable physical tools. With those attributes featured in Orlando’s complex system, Lobendahn is excited to play a defense that looks “phenomenal on paper.”
Whether USC can pick up where it left off against Stanford will depend on Lobendahn’s ability to recognize what Texas is showing and then neutralize it. Clay Helton believes Lobendahn has the right mix of traits to make it happen.
“I tell you what, 50 is playing great football right now. We knew he would,” Helton said. “His athleticism is really shining at the left tackle position, but I do think the experience, the reps at multiple positions, is really helping him this year.”