The offensive line is up next in our look, position-by-position, down the USC roster at this past season and into the future, with what was expected heading into 2020, what was delivered, and what’s next.
What was expected
USC needed to replace both of its starting tackles, but with so much experience coming back, even replacing a first-round pick at left tackle wasn’t expected to set the line back much. Before spring ball started, it was expected that both of last year’s guards would slide out to tackle and two veterans would man the guard positions, with Brett Neilon remaining at center.
As for whether the line would ultimately be better than it was in 2019 was one of the biggest questions coming into the 2020 season. Not having spring ball was a major hit to the line, as the presumed starting five didn’t have any opportunities to work together and develop that understanding and communication that only comes with taking rep after rep after rep next to the same players.
Nothing affected the expectations for the line quite like Alijah Vera-Tucker announcing that he would indeed play this season, rather than continue to opt out and prepare for the 2021 NFL Draft. Vera-Tucker gave the Trojans a starting left tackle and a focal point for the offensive line. But ultimately, there were more questions about this spot heading into the season than anywhere else on the offense, and maybe the entire team. The individual pieces would be good enough to field a good unit, but would the combination work, and would the offense allow this group to reach its potential?
What was delivered
USC rushed for 3.2 yards per carry, allowed three sacks in five of the six games played and now goes into another offseason where starting quarterback Kedon Slovis has to recover from an arm injury suffered late in the final game of the year.
Those stats and facts make it clear that the line did not play up to the expectations set by head coach Clay Helton and offensive coordinator Graham Harrell before the season began. There were some good performances, and Vera-Tucker had an outstanding season before ending it on a sour note with a subpar performance against Oregon while gutting it out through a hamstring injury.
The rushing yards against Arizona State and Arizona to start the season were by far the most the Trojans produced all year, as USC was held to 100 or fewer yards on the ground in each of the final four games. The offensive line performed somewhat better in short yardage situations later in the season, though a 4th down stop against Oregon where standout defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux came in untouched will surely be one of the lasting images of that championship game loss.
USC rushed for 584 yards in six games and just over 22% of those yards came on three carries — a 49-yard Markese Stepp run and a 37-yard Stephen Carr run against Arizona, and a 47-yard Kenan Christon run against Utah.
The Trojans struggled to create lanes at the point of attack and to cut off the backside pursuit on several big plays during the year. USC also couldn’t consistently get linemen into the second level to create bigger gains. Against Washington State and Oregon, USC rushed 48 times and did not have a run of more than eight yards.
There truly is talent along the line, and with Vera-Tucker all but guaranteed to declare for the 2021 NFL Draft, the Trojans could have offensive linemen taken in the first round in back-to-back years. But it’s tough to shake the feeling that while there are always plenty of comments dedicated to how important big men are and how much the offensive line dictates the direction of the offense and team overall, there just doesn’t seem to be enough emphasis on developing the offensive line or leaning on it to help control a game or set the tone. Whether that won’t happen or can’t happen, the results were the same as the USC offense struggled at times in short-yardage and quarterback Kedon Slovis rarely had the luxury of simply handing the ball off and counting on the run game to carry the load at times.
This is ultimately the biggest question facing the Trojans as far as on-field questions go. What’s next for the offensive line? If Vera-Tucker does indeed leave, the Trojans need to find another left tackle and there don’t seem to be any ready-made replacements right now. Liam Jimmons will have the opportunity to return next season, which means USC might have four returning starters up front, with left guard Andrew Vorhees, center Brett Neilon, right guard Jimmons and right tackle Jalen McKenzie all scheduled to return.
USC also got a bit of a look at Courtland Ford and Jonah Monheim, true freshmen who signed as part of the six-man offensive line class in 2020, and a couple of potential options for that opening at left tackle. This will be an important offseason for the other four members of that 2020 class — Casey Collier, Andres Dewerk, Andrew Milek and Caadyn Stephen — as they’ll be called upon next year to provide depth at all five positions.
Justin Dedich, Liam Douglass and Jason Rodriguez could be important pieces as well, as they’ll be asked to push the returning starters — and Rodriguez could eventually jump into the mix at left tackle.
USC signed three offensive linemen in the early signing period for the 2021 class, though none will be here for spring. Mason Murphy, Ty Buchanan and Maximus Gibbs are three more sizable additions to this unit that now has added nine players in two classes and could see another one or two before the 2021 season begins.
It’s a good sign that the coaches have loaded up on offensive linemen over the last couple classes, after signing very few in the 2018 and 2019 classes combined. But the biggest question is whether this Air Raid offense is capable of fielding an offensive line capable of putting up sufficient rushing numbers overall (Helton has said they’re targeting 165-175 rushing yards per game), converting short-yardage situations consistently, and keeping the quarterback upright and healthy for an entire season. That hasn’t happened in two years (or one and a half) of this offense.