It’s a strange thing to have an offensive line that might return just one starter to the position he played the previous season, but also boasts as much or more starting and playing experience as any line in the conference. But that’s what the Trojans have this season, as Brett Neilon as center might be the only holdover from how USC lined up last season.
USC lost starting left tackle Austin Jackson to the NFL as a first-round pick and starting right tackle Drew Richmond to graduation. There will ultimately be an answer to how the Trojans will replace those two, and USC players and coaches will spend the next few weeks searching for it.
What’s known already is that the Trojans should be in good shape up front with whatever shape the starting lineup takes. No offseason news–save for the 2020 season restarting–was more welcome for USC fans than the return of Alijah Vera-Tucker, the Trojans’ starting left guard last season and unquestionably one of the best offensive linemen in the conference. Vera-Tucker initially opted out of the 2020 season to allow himself to prepare for the 2021 NFL Draft.
Vera-Tucker said Tuesday that he put plenty of thought into the decision to return to the Trojans.
“It definitely wasn’t something I thought about as soon as they announced the fall season was returning,” Vera-Tucker said. “Once I looked at all the pros and cone, I thought it was a good idea to come back and compete with my brothers.”
Neilon is the clear starter at center, and there is also plenty of starting experience between Jalen McKenzie and Andrew Vorhees, both of whom earned that time at right guard. In addition to those four, Liam Jimmons got some significant playing time last season at right guard and Justin Dedich saw action at center when Neilon went down with an injury, and also lined up this past spring at left guard. That gives USC seven veteran options for five spots, with both guard Liam Douglass and tackle Jason Rodriguez knocking on the door right behind them.
Offensive coordinator Graham Harrell is always going to be tied to his quarterbacks, receivers and the passing game, but he knows plenty well that the overall success of the offense starts up front with the big men.
Three practices into fall camp, he’s overall pleased with what’s going on in front of quarterback Kedon Slovis.
“I feel really good about where we are at offensive line,” Harrell said, adding that Vera-Tucker’s return is a huge boost to the group and the offense as a whole. “That’s what we always say–our success is going to start up front. And with the amount of experience we have coming back and the talent level of those guys, and as much football as they’ve played–especially if we can stay pretty healthy–I feel really, really great about where we are.”
Harrell said that group does a great job with protection, but it also should allow the Trojans to run the ball at a “really effective rate.”
“It’s going to make us that much more dynamic and that much more versatile, having the experience and having the type of guys we have up there,” Harrell said.
Now, it’s just a matter of finding out who those guys are, and in what order they’ll appear. Harrell said it’s about weighing where guys fit best–as some players can play both guard and tackle, but might be better at one spot or one side than another. And chemistry has to play a role as well, as the way two players work together will be an important factor. But offensive line coach Tim Drevno and offensive staff have to go much deeper than just finding the five starters.
“We have to find a way where we can get the best five on the field that play the best together, and that’s what we’re trying to do,” Harrell said. “But at the same time, I think at the offensive line position, there’s going to be times where you have to play more than five guys. So we also have to mix up who we’re putting in there right now because we have to get reps at different combinations. Whether it be from injury or someone gets tired or whatever the case may be, we have to be prepared to have different guys in, different lineups out there, guys at different positions, and still be able to execute at a really high level.”
Harrell said that obviously they want to get the most reps together for the give guys who they feel will ultimately be the starters, but making sure Neilon has reps with several different guards on either side of him is an important part of this fall camp so that if that happens during a game this year, they have those practice reps together to rely on.
He added that the experience and talent of the line should allow the USC offense to account for anything an opposing defense throws at them. Last season, Notre Dame went away from its typical defensive look and played three-down linemen for the entire game. Harrell said they looked back at six years of Notre Dame film and never saw the Fighting Irish in that look. He said USC will continue to run their offense throughout the year, but can adjust while relying on experience and returning talent.
“I do think teams may try some things they don’t normally try against us,” Harrell said. “But if they want to drop everyone off, especially with the experience we have an o-line and running back, I think we’re going to run the ball at a really effective rate. Tht’s going to put people in binds. If we can be that dynamic and that versatile where no matter what you do you’ve got a really talented guy touching the football, we’re going to be in a good position…I think we’re going to be able to move people off the ball in the run game and we’re going to protect at a high level in the pass game.”
Head coach Clay Helton spoke on Monday about the six true freshmen USC added to the offensive line this fall. He said Jonah Monheim and Courtland Ford have stood out immediately and are the two most likely to see early playing time. He added that Casey Collier–all nearly 6-foot-8 of him–has a chance to be really special down the road as he progresses in the weight room. Those three are joined by Andrew Milek, who has taken some reps snapping the ball, Caadyn Stephen and Andres Dewerk.
Harrell and Neilon had similarly positive things to say about the newcomers.
“The first thing that stands out is their size,” Neilon said. “Very big group. Very long group…You go down the list, they’re big guys and they’re actually grasping the offense really well so far. I think they’re doing good things and I think they’re going to be special, and some of them are going to have to contribute for sure.”