USC will bring back a huge majority of its offensive starters for the 2021 season, but that side of the ball also might have the biggest hole to fill, as left tackle Alijah Vera-Tucker is off to be selected as a first round pick in the upcoming NFL draft.
On Monday, USC head coach Clay Helton provided four names that the Trojan coaches will look at in their efforts to replace Vera-Tucker, and provide both the best answer to a starting group of five up front as well as the player best equipped to protect quarterback Kedon Slovis’ blindside.
There is no shortage of offensive tackle possibilities on the USC roster. Helton said the staff has purposely looked for linemen who play offensive tackle in high school, then find the best spot for them along the line in college. In the 2017 class, Austin Jackson, Andrew Vorhees, Jalen McKenzie and Vera-Tucker were all high school tackles. Only Jackson exclusively played tackle for the Trojans.
McKenzie is the one veteran mentioned by Helton as getting a look on the left side to replace Vera-Tucker. McKenzie started last season at right tackle, one year after he started almost all of the 2019 season at right guard. Moving McKenzie from right tackle to left tackle would obviously open up another hole that would need to be filled, but (also obviously) getting the best option locked in at left tackle is the first priority in that situation.
After McKenzie, a trio of second-year players will be looks, and none of them come as a surprise.
Courtland Ford was the first name Helton mentioned, as the head coach raved about his performance so far this offseason.
“Courtland Ford has had a dynamic spring over the last eight weeks, showing his athleticism,” Helton said. “We’ll take a look at him.”
Ford was a one-time LSU commitment who had some injury issues during the recruiting process, but talent was never really a question. He’s one of the team’s hardest workers and has been a guy from that 2020 recruiting class consistently mentioned as a player who could see early playing time somewhere along the offensive line. Ford started at left guard last season against Washington State, when Covid protocols forced a lineup shuffle up front.
Jonah Monheim will also get an opportunity to compete for the left tackle spot. He also saw some extended action in that Washington State game, and played left tackle in high school.
One of the more intriguing names in this group is Casey Collier, who came in needing to fill out his frame a bit and apparently has done just that. Helton said he’s now tipping the scales at 317 pounds, up nearly 30 pounds from the 290 he was listed at on last year’s roster.
“Casey Collier has really come on, a 6-foot-9, 317-pound athlete that really has developed a lot of core strength,” Helton said. “We’ll end up taking a look at him.”
There should be some help available for the left tackle this season, as USC brings back two veteran running backs in Stephen Carr and Vavae Malepeai — and added transfer running back Keaontay Ingram, who played a lot at Texas — and has a number of tight ends who should be capable of helping against defenders on that side, with seniors Erik Krommenhoek and Josh Falo returning, plus both Jude Wolfe and Ethan Rae with another year under their belts.
USC averaged just 97.3 rushing yards per game and allowed 15 sacks in just six games last season. Those are numbers that need to trend in opposite directions in 2021 and losing Vera-Tucker does not make that an easy task. Finding the correct answer at left tackle is an absolute necessity for this offense, and one thing offensive line coach Clay McGuire will definitely be focused on over the next few weeks.
“At the end of the day, it’s about getting those primary first five, as well as obviously protecting the quarterback’s backside,” Helton said of the goal for this spring.