It was tough to say that any one aspect of the 2018 USC offense stood out above the rest as the sole reason for the season-long collapse on that side of the ball. But as far as the offensive line is concerned, there’s a reason they say “it all starts up front.”
This 2019 group has a chance to set the tone early and often for what appears capable of being one of the more dynamic offenses in the Pac-12, helping to turn the page completely on what everyone hopes is a quickly-forgotten 2018 offensive performance.
The biggest change for the entire team is the new-look, Air Raid offense, which highlights the quarterback and receivers. But nobody will do much of anything unless the offensive line can get things going. On that front, Drevno appears to enjoy the new look.
“It’s not a big change,” Drevno said of this Air Raid offense and using wider splits, something he said the team did during the 2014 season. “It takes the defensive ends farther away from the quarterback when you throw the ball. It creates running lanes when you run the ball. It kind of gives you some air in there and some space to work.”
USC must replace starters at left guard, center, and right tackle. But the heirs apparent at those positions seemed to slide seamlessly into place this spring, as Alijah Vera-Tucker took over at left guard, next to returning left tackle Austin Jackson. Brett Neilon has kept Justin Dedich at bay thus far in the battle to be the starting center. And Jalen McKenzie spent all of spring ball and the first week-plus of fall camp entrenched at right tackle.
There were questions as to whether this could be a group that could dominate opposing defenses, keep the starting quarterback clean, and open enough lanes for a running game to get going. So far, so good, according to offensive line coach Tim Drevno.
“I think we’re progressing nicely,” Drevno said of the line’s performance this fall. “I think we’re picking up what we need to do. We’re getting better fundamentally.”
Questions will follow this group until they can prove in a game that a significant step has been taken from last year. The line had an opportunity to get some forward momentum this past Saturday, during the team’s first fall scrimmage, and Drevno said they delivered.
“I saw guys competing well,” he said. “I thought the tempo was good for our no-huddle offense. I thought the communication was good. I think there’s a lot of positive things out of that scrimmage. You have to feel good about that. First scrimmage where you go live. I feel good.”
After running out a consistent starting five all spring and fall, this week provided a first look at a few tweaks, as McKenzie spent some time at right guard, with grad transfer Drew Richmond at right tackle. Returning right guard Andrew Vorhees also worked at right tackle. Backup guard Liam Douglass also got a shot at tackle. It’s likely that those kinds of changes will continue through the rest of camp.
“This is training camp,” Drevno said. “Sometimes a guy might have to play guard somewhere down the road, so you’re mixing and matching and going from there and just trying to find the best fit.”
Drevno said cross training several linemen at different positions made sense after the first week.
“Get settled in, guys feel comfortable with their assignments and what their technique is, and then you say, ‘Okay, we’re going to do some cross training here,'” Drevno said. “I don’t think there’s any combination we’re looking at. Just mixing and matching.”
While Drevno likes where the line is now, he’s quick to say that there are a lot of things the group needs to improve upon, but that they’ve been hitting the checklist as they go.
“I always say Rome wasn’t built in a day,” Drevno said. “You have to pick one or two things to get better at [each day] and we’ve been doing that as a group. So I’m pleased with that.”
It makes sense for Drevno and the offensive staff to take a look at Richmond, who comes over from Tennessee with 26 starts under his belt as a veteran presence. While his performance so far hasn’t appeared to make him a no-brainer starter, his first-team reps this week give a nod to supporting competition along the line, and he is certainly a player who will be called upon at various times this season.
“He’s a 26-game starter,” Drevno said as he rattled off what Richmond brings to the team. “Sharp in the room. Football is important to him. He likes to work. Good leader. Keeps his mouth quiet. Just works and tries to get really good.”
In addition to Richmond, at right or left tackle, starter or backup, the Trojans will likely need to rely on some depth throughout the season, due to the physical demands the up-tempo offense can have on every offensive player. That makes players like Liam Jimmons and Frank Martin — both players who have spent time at tackle and guard — potentially important pieces this season. Drevno also said it wouldn’t be out of the question to give Dedich a shot at guard, though there haven’t been any signs of that happening to this point.
“Nothing is ruled out,” Drevno said. “You always want to cross train because you never know what’s going to come.”
One thing that’s sure to come is a rough first six games of the season, featuring four (and maybe all six) tough defensive fronts in Stanford, Utah, Washington, and Notre Dame. But this offensive line will continue to be tested by what should be a more than solid group on the other side of the ball, as USC’s defensive line boasts as much talent as any group in the Pac-12.
“It makes us even better when you have those kind of guys to line up against,” Drevno said. “It’s been good. Really good. There’s some things we have to clean up. But again, we’re in practice 10. We don’t play until August 31.”