You could have thrown darts at the depth chart and found a position on the field or coaching staff that shared in some of the blame for USC’s 5-7 record last fall. But there might not have been a more scrutinized group than the offensive line, as the Trojans just could never quite get the offense going for four quarters, and struggled in short-yardage situations.
And while the arrival of offensive coordinator Graham Harrell’s Air Raid system helps shine the spotlight on a spring quarterback competition and wide receivers who will be asked to raise their productivity from last season, one football adage remains true.
It all starts up front.
“If we handle everything up front, it makes it easier on everybody else,” said left tackle Austin Jackson, one of just two returning starters along the line.
Jackson is joined as a returning starter by likely right guard Andrew Vorhees. While left tackle, center, and right tackle are all vacated by departing seniors, the Trojans have been steady so far in trotting out Alijah Vera-Tucker, Brett Neilon, and Jalen McKenzie, respectively, to fill those spots. It’s a family reunion of sorts, as all five of those players were signed in the 2017 recruiting class (McKenzie counted against the 2018 class as a 2017 blueshirt).
Offensive line coach Tim Drevno is tasked with molding this group into one that can set the tone for what fans hope is a dynamic USC offense. For Drevno, two things stick out when it comes to coaching the offensive line, and football in general.
“This game’s about technique,” Drevno said. “This game’s about physicality.”
There were questions as to what the offensive line’s responsibilities would be in this air raid system, and Drevno said there have been some adjustments, but probably not as many as some might expect.
“Every scheme is different and Graham has a different philosophy on how he wants us to teach it, so you have to adjust to that,” he said. “But I think there’s some carryover in some schemes we did last year, so that’s nice. There’s a little bit of adjustment, a teaching style that I have to do a better job of, and they have to learn just a little bit better. But in terms of overhaul, a huge deal, it’s not like we’re going to a triple option.”
Jackson also downplayed any kind of massive change in expectations for the offensive line.
“Run blocking is still a big key,” he said of Harrell’s system. If you look at all the Air Raid offenses, they can still run the ball very well. That’s one of the perks of the Air Raid, with spread out offenses. There’s not really much of a change. We just need to pick up the pace more.”
McKenzie, who saw action at right tackle last in in place of Chuma Edoga, said he’s never been in an offense like Harrell’s, but things clicked quickly for him when it came to grasping the overall.
“It’s easy to buy into,” McKenzie said of this system. “Now that we have an identity of what we want to be and what we want to do, it’s just perfecting it so that we can go as fast as possible.”
For several offensive linemen, including Jackson, just getting back on the field for spring was a major relief.
“The biggest thing is coming off the season we had,” Jackson said. “I got to go home for about three weeks with no bowl game. It was miserable. I hated every second of it. Not just me, but our whole team. We have to do everything better. Bigger, faster, stronger.”
Head coach Clay Helton has praised the offensive linemen for stepping forward during winter conditioning workouts to take on more of a leadership role. Jackson said that wasn’t an accident.
“I think as big guys, we took it upon ourselves to be more together as a unit and lead everybody else,” he said.
One improvement that is noticeable early on in spring ball is how good the snapping has been, both from Neilon and Justin Dedich. Again, that isn’t by accident.
Neilon said the centers are constantly being graded on their snaps, and only the quarterback catching the ball at his chest, center mast, is graded as a perfect snap. Neilon said Drevno has been particularly tough on the centers, adding that he will go into a meeting thinking he hit a certain percentage, only to find out his rate suffered a few more dings than he was expecting.
Tuesday’s practice saw the offensive line challenged a bit as the defense began bringing pressure in earnest for the first time this spring. Communication with three new starters will be something to watch as the defense continues to throw new wrinkles at the line, but in an offense built on repetition and one that allows them to still be aggressive in the run game, there is a positive outlook from the projected starters.
“We’re still learning as we go,” McKenzie said. “Once we get all our assignments down to where it’s second nature, we’ll be real scary. Right now, as an offensive line, we’re getting it. We just need to perfect it. That’s the next step for us.”