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Insider

Offensive line set with Chad Wheeler's return

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The Trojans got a major boost on the offensive line this week when coach Steve Sarkisian said that left tackle Chad Wheeler was ready to return for game action this Saturday against Arkansas State.

Wheeler was only recently cleared for full contact drills following rehab from knee surgery last fall, and he also missed time during fall camp with a concussion.

“Chad has really worked himself into good shape,” Sarkisian said. “He’s performing at a high level, and I feel good about him that if he goes out and plays every snap on Saturday, that we’ll be fine.”

If history is any indication Wheeler will be just fine once he gets back on the field. He originally earned the left tackle job prior to his redshirt freshman season and started 22 straight games before injury his knee last year against Utah (he even played one series with the injury before finally leaving the game).

To indicate how important Wheeler is to the USC offense, consider that Buck Allen was leading the Pac-12 conference in rushing at 126.2 yards per game through the first eight games, but after Wheeler went out of the lineup he averaged only 95.8 yards per game over the remaining five matches.

“The critical component to the line coming together, and I hate to overstate one guy, is Chad Wheeler,” said former USC offensive lineman Mike Lamb. “Things changed dramatically when he went down last season because he was their best offensive lineman and will be again when he returns.”

That’s high praise for Wheeler when you consider that senior center Max Tuerk was named first-team All-Pac-12 last year, and is on several pre-season award watch lists this year, but it shows just how important it will be to have Wheeler back in the line-up.

One of the other advantages for the USC line with Wheeler back is that it allows Toa Lobendahn to be moved to guard, which is a spot that more ideally suits his size and skill set. Lobendahn was named to numerous Freshman All-American teams last season after starting all 13 games, the first eight at left guard and the final five at left tackle in place of Wheeler. Lobendahn is considered the most athletic and versatile of the USC lineman, he will be a strong candidate to replace Tuerk at center next year, and he moved to the starting right guard spot once it became clear that Wheeler would be back in time for the season opener.

Viane Talamaivao had been the starter at right guard for the final 11 games of the 2014 season and through fall camp. Talamaivao will now move to a reserve role, although Sarkisian has said that the Trojans will do a lot of rotating at the two guard spots between Lobendahn, Talamaivao and starting left guard Damien Mama.

Freshmen hit the field: The guard spot won’t be the only rotation along the offensive line as Sarkisian said true freshman Chuma Edoga will get time at right tackle on Saturday along with starter Zach Banner. And with Justin Davis out of the line-up at tailback, Sarkisian confirmed that all three freshmen running backs (Ronald Jones, Dominic Davis and Aca’Cedric Ware) will see action as well. Tight end Tyler Petite is listed as one of three potential starters at tight end.

On the defensive side of the ball, middle inside linebacker Cameron Smith will be in the starting line-up with Lamar Dawson out due to a rib injury. Other first-year defensive players expected to see the field include Rasheem Green, Porter Gustin, Osa Masina, Iman Marshall and Marvell Tell.

Scouting Arkansas State: The Red Wolves have put together four consecutive winning seasons, based largely on the success of an offense that set school marks last season in total offense, points and touchdowns. Nine offensive starters return, including quarterback Fredi Knighten (3,277 passing yards, 24 TD and seven interceptions) and the three leading receivers (Tres Houston, J.D. McKissic and Dijon Paschal). McKissic has the most career catches, 237, of any returning player in the nation. Arkansas State posted 37 sacks on defense last year, and they are led by linebacker Xavier Woodson (95 tackles, four sacks).