USC offensive coordinator Graham Harrell met with the media on Tuesday morning, before the fourth practice of the Trojans’ fall camp. Alongside him were USC offensive linemen Alijah Vera-Tucker and Brett Neilon, as Harrell and the big men touched on topics ranging from getting Vera-Tucker back on the line and the strengths of that group, to the weapons USC has in the passing game, to dealing with potential adjustments from defenses now that they’ve had a look at the USC Air Raid.
Knocking off the rust
Harrell said it’s great to be back on the field, but there are some things this offense needs to clean up after a few days, even though there are so many veteran returners.
“It’s been nine months since we’ve put on pads, so there’s a lot to clean up and a lot of room to improve,” Harrell said. “Obviously throughout the summer, some of our guys were throwing a good bit. But just throwing on air in shorts and a t-shirt is a whole lot different than playing a game of football.
“We’re extremely excited that we get the opportunity to play this year. But also, we need to continue to improve. We need to continue to get better every day, and we have a long ways to go. We have four weeks to get there though, so we have a little bit of time and we’re excited about it.”
On USC’s young receivers, Bru McCoy and Gary Bryant Jr.
Harrell said both have been impressive when they’ve been healthy. Bryant has been moved around the offense a big and has “done a lot of good things.” Harrell was effusive in his praise for McCoy, though he added that he’s still coming along and working his way back onto the field and into the offense.
“Bru is still working into it, but when he’s in there, he’s different,” Harrell said. “He’s explosive. He’s hard to cover because not only is he explosive, he’s also very strong and big. He’s a fun guy to have.”
USC returns veterans in Amon-Ra St. Brown and Tyler Vaughns, as well as sophomore Drake London. But there is a void created by the departure of Michael Pittman, and the young receivers could come into play there.
“They’re going to have to play big roles for us, so we need them to continue to improve, continue to grow, and the more and more comfortable they get I think that obviously you’ll see less and less hesitation and they’ll become better and better every day,” Harrell said. “Those two have a lot of talent and I think they’re going to contribute a lot for us.”
Harrell said there’s a difference in McCoy when comparing the time he got during last year’s bowl practices and this year’s fall camp.
“During bowl practices he’s just kid of working back into it and now that there’s an obvious sense of urgency because the season is right around the corner and we need him to contribute,” Harrell said. “I think he understands that and he’s done some really good things.”
Figuring out the offensive line
While Harrell spends time further developing quarterback Kedon Slovis and the wide receivers, his focus this fall will be on the offensive line as well.
“I feel really good about where we are at offensive line, especially with AVT (Vera-Tucker) coming back,” Harrell said. “For us, if we’re good up front, we’ve got a chance to win a whole lot of football games. That’s really anybody in football these days, but particularly us. 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. I think that with that crew, they’re going to make us so much better. It’s going to be hard to stop us because they do a great job with protection, but they allow us to run the ball at a really effective rate. So 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 pointed out Vera-Tucker and Neilon, as well as Andrew Vorhees, Jalen McKenzie, Liam Jimmons and Justin Dedich as guys returning with varying degrees of experience. USC also has Liam Douglass and Jason Rodriguez, who could be ready to play this season. And the Trojans signed six offensive linemen in the 2020 class.
Neilon said the true freshmen are a group of big players, all with good height and size.
“They’re a great group of guys,” Neilon said of the freshmen. “Super hard working. They mesh well into the team, so it’s an exciting future for all of them and I think you’ll probably see a few of them this year. It’s going to be good stuff.”
The challenge for Harrell and offensive line coach Tim Drevno exists in not only picking a starting five, but making sure that no matter the combinations that are asked to play throughout the season have an established relationship that dates back to this fall camp.
“Chemistry is as important as anything,” Harrell said. “Getting reps with the guy next to you. It’s five separate individuals, but–especially depending on what the play is, what the protection is and who they’re working with–a lot of time they’re working with another guy, so they have to play as one. The chemistry up there is going to be really important and just getting reps with each other, understanding where the guy next to you is going to be. All those things play a huge role in helping the five shake out.”
On opposing defenses adjusting after Year One of the USC Air Raid
Harrell was asked about defenses adjusting to his offense. It appears that he’s used last year’s Notre Dame game as a learning opportunity, though he’s not quite convinced that he’ll see teams continue to change their looks to that extent this year.
“We looked like six years back and they hadn’t played a snap of three-down and then they played three-down against us every snap,” Harrell said of Notre Dame. “You never really know what you’re going to see going in, and I think it’ll be really interesting to see what teams’ plans are against us.”
It’s clear that Harrell might not necessarily believe they should have done anything different to prepare for the game. Instead, that the adjustments should have come quicker.
“I don’t think that people will completely go away from who they are,” Harrell said. “Notre Dame did last year and in the second half I think we scored every time we touched it because we adjusted and it wasn’t what they do normally. They were looking for answers. Most teams, I would imagine, will kind of stay true to who they are and do what they do.”
Harrell said he believes this Todd Orlando defense will go a long way in preparing the offense for anything they can see this year.
“One of the good things about our defensive staff is they do a little bit of everything, so hopefully we’ll have reps in all our plays against a bunch of different looks, a bunch of different blitzes, a bunch of different fronts, and we’ll be prepared for whatever they throw at us,” Harrell said. “I do think it’ll be interesting. I don’t know if teams will come in with different gameplans or how they’re going to adjust their gameplans based on who they are. But the beautiful thing about what we do offensively–and we preach it to our guys all the time–is we’re based strictly on execution and we’re going to go out there and we’re going to do what we do at a really high level. And if we do that, we think we can be successful against anything anyone throws at us. That’s our mentality and that’s what we’re preparing for.”
The three-man front was something successfully deployed by both Notre Dame and BYU in their wins. The Trojans rushed for 171 yards in each game, but needed 45 carries against the Cougars and just 35 against the Fighting Irish (eight of those carries against Notre Dame were Slovis rushes that resulted in -1 yard).
Harrell believes that similar defensive strategies this year won’t yield such positive results for opponents.
“If they want to drop everyone off, especially with the experience we have at o-line and running back, I think we’re going to run the ball at a really effective rate” Harrell said. “That’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 and we’re going to be in a good position. Because like I said, 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…We’ve got to improve, but I’m excited about the talent we have, the experience we have and the opportunity we have coming up.”
Harrell had some incredibly high praise for London.
“I think that Drake London is as talented of a player as I’ve been around,” Harrell said. “To combine the size that he has with his body control and his ball skills, his toughness. I think that he creates natural matchup problems for people.”
Harrell compared London to some of the NFL’s elite tight ends, and that he can beat smaller defensive backs with his size and bigger linebackers with his speed.
“If we want to win at the level we think we’re capable of winning at this year, he’s going to play a large role in that,” Harrell said. “He’s going to be a key part of what we do and he’s going to have to elevate his game to an even higher level. You don’t really sit there and say we’re going to have to figure out how to replace Michael Pittman because everyone is different. Michael Pittman did a lot of great things for us last year, but Michael Pittman is no longer here, so we have to figure out how to use the guys we have.”
Vera-Tucker on his return
Offensive lineman Alijah Vera-Tucker was one of two USC players to opt out of the 2020 season and make themselves eligible for the 2021 NFL Draft. When the Pac-12 announced it would indeed play a season this fall, Vera-Tucker ultimately decided to return. But that was not a quick decision for him.
“It took a lot of thought,” Vera-Tucker said. “Talking to my family, friends and coaches. It definitely wasn’t something that I thought about as soon as they announced the fall season was returning. After a lot of thought, I thought, why not come back and compete with my bothers? Compete for the Pac-12 championship. The reason why I came back last year as to do the exact same thing. Once I looked at all the pros and cons, I thought it was a good idea to come back and compete with my brothers.”