Clay McGuire knows what he’s getting into in taking over as the offensive line coach for the USC Trojans. During his introductory press conference on Friday, McGuire rattled off the names of USC offensive line greats Tony Boselli, Bruce Matthews and Anthony Muñoz. He recalled a story about then-Washington State athletic director Bill Moos telling the Cougar coaching staff that USC always sets the standard for the Pac-12 conference. He knows that coaching at a place with the tradition and history of USC is “a dream come true.” And he also knows that the USC Trojans finished dead last in the Pac-12 in rushing last season and have been unable to keep a quarterback healthy through a full season for three years.
Now, McGuire inherits an offensive line that will return four of five starters from last year’s team and will likely produce a first-round NFL draft pick for the second year in a row. The Trojans have to figure out what to do at left tackle in replacing Alijah Vera-Tucker, but improvement at other positions is expected with another year of experience. And a group of true freshmen in 2020 will be that much farther along in their development. But before there’s any focus on any individual piece, McGuire said his major focus when taking over an offensive line deals with the group as a whole.
“I’m really big in culture, continuity,” McGuire said. “I think those guys, they have to lead from the front. It’s the biggest group on the team from the standpoint they have more numbers…And they’re bigger. They’re just literally bigger than everybody. They have to be able to lead, but they also have to be a close group, and the continuity of that group has to be really strong and really tight.”
McGuire uses the Great Wall of Dallas — the Cowboys offensive line of the early 1990’s — as his gold standard of offensive lines and said finding that toughness, that culture and that continuity built around one Hall of Famer and several castoffs, is what they’ll strive for.
USC has had difficulty consistently setting the tone up front and establishing dominance with the offensive line of late, either in the running game or with elite pass blocking.
“There’s a tradition here,” McGuire said. “There’s guys that played here before and when they turn on a game to watch their alma mater, they expect that group to play a certain way. And that’s what we’ve got to get and we’re going to strive to get that. Because like I said, when Pat Harlow turns on the tape and those kind of guys turn on the tape, I want them to be proud of how that o-line is playing.”
Offensive coordinator Graham Harrell is not going to be flipping from a pass-heavy offense to a run-dominant one from one season to the next, but the familiarity McGuire brings to the program could allow for the tailbacks to be featured more prominently.
“When you really study the elite, top-level-high-end programs, everybody in this day and age with the spread offense and throwing the ball at a high level, what it really comes down to is who’s great up front,” McGuire said. “And you look every year and year in and year out, the top teams in the country are the ones that are great up front on both sides of the ball.
“My goal coming here is to build the best offensive line in the country and I think that USC is a place where you have the tools and the resources and the expectations to do that…We’re got to improve ourselves in the run game from the five offensive linemen standpoint. We’ve got to put those guys in good positions and schematically to make sure that we’re running downhill and not uphill.”
McGuire said he and Harrell have already begun conversations about moving forward a running game that accounted for just 97 yards per game last year, way down from the 120 yards per game it accumulated in 2019.
“We’re talking about it at length yesterday,” McGuire said. “Every time we’re had a really good offense or a really strong football team, the run game has been really good.”
McGuire said it didn’t always come down to rushing totals, but effective running. He added that in order to position yourself as a championship team, there would likely be a time when you’d need to execute a four-minute offense and grind out a win on the ground.
“We’re both in agreeance that when this offense is going, it’s because the running back can’t be stopped,” McGuire said. “It’s really, really hard to stop this offense is you can’t contain the running back position, whether that’s running the football or getting the ball to him in space in the passing game. We understand how key that position is and if we can be great at that position, which starts with the run game, it’s going to be really hard to stop the other factors in this offense.”
McGuire also feels it’s important for the ground game to establish itself early, and to give Harrell and quarterback Kedon Slovis a sense of security in its productivity.
“My experience with the Air Raid type guys, the more successful you are early, the more apt you’re going to get to do it,” McGuire said. “The more success you have with that, you’re able to get the runs called more, and it’s also something the quarterback feels more confident with as far as just handing the thing off.”
Asked whether there were any simple tweaks that could be done to get more out of the running game than USC got last season, McGuire said there always are.
“I think there’s a few things from the schematic standpoint that we’re going to be able to do that’s going to be really easy for the quarterback, and it’s going to be really easy for us to have success early in the run game,” McGuire said. “And when you can establish that earlier, it forced the defense to adjust to you, and then you have the cards, so to say, in your hand.”
But for all the talk about the running game, Slovis back and a stable of passing game options including Drake London, Bru McCoy, Gary Bryant and incoming transfer K.D. Nixon, the passing game will be featured once again in 2021. And McGuire feels he has that covered as well, in what he brings as a coach.
“What’s unique in this day and age in college football is the lack of true pass protection, drop back pass protection,” McGuire said. “What you’re seeing out there a lot is the RPO base, play-action, pass game.”
He sees running an Air Raid system as being a huge positive when hitting the recruiting trail looking for linemen.
“There’s an emphasis on having to be able to drop back pass and protect the quarterback,” McGuire said of this USC offense. “It’s something that I think helps us when we do go into the recruiting process, just because there’s not a lot of college teams that do it, and it’s a skill. They’re paying Patrick Mahomes $500 million and they’re going to drop back pass in the NFL, so you have to be able to do that. I think that’s a little bit of a lost art, is the ability to teach true pass protection.”
McGuire was asked about potentially pushing for the quarterback to take some snaps under center in certain situations. It’s clear that McGuire would prefer to do that on occasion, but that ultimately it’s not his call.
“I think there’s a time and place for some under-center stuff,” he said. “Do I think it’s always the answer to running the ball better? No, I don’t…That’ll be something that, as we continue to get more and more into developing our installs and getting ready for spring ball, conversations with coach Harrell and the offensive staff about some of the short-yardage things that we want to do.”
McGuire is going to have a few months to decide on his five starting offensive linemen and he said the process of getting to know the individual players have gotten off to a good start.
“We’ve got some talent in that room,” McGuire said. “We’ll see as it goes, but I’m happy with where the room is now. It’s not like we’re walking into a situation we’re going, oh no, I don’t know what we’re going to do. We should have the talent and the size and ability to be able to make some plays.”
Ultimately, this USC offense is likely to go as far as the offensive line can take it. At the very least, it will need to keep Slovis better protected and clear the way for USC to get comfortably back up over 100 rushing yards per game.
The line returns starters in left guard Andrew Vorhees, center Brett Neilon, right guard Liam Jimmons and right tackle Jalen McKenzie, with backups Justin Dedich, Liam Douglass and Jason Rodriguez, as well as 2020 true freshmen Courtland Ford, Jonah Monheim and Casey Collier, who could be ready for playing time this season. USC also signed Caadyn Stephen, Andrew Milek and Andres Dewerk last season and will add Mason Murphy, Maximus Gibbs and Ty Buchanan in this 2021 class.
“When we step on that field every day, I want to be the hardest working group,” McGuire said. “I don’t care whether it’s practice or whatever we’re doing. I want the strength coach or whoever is out there to go back and say, look, regardless of the results, the hardest working group on the field is the offensive line. And it has to be that way. And it has to be the toughest group out there. And we have to establish that identity and that culture. Obviously, it’s a work in progress right now, but that’s what we’re working on to do as quickly as possible.”