Camaraderie, as Graham Harrell saw it, was the crux of any good offensive line. So this past summer, as USC prepared to replace three starters along a front that struggled a season ago, the offensive line opted to throw a barbecue.
The players did so at the behest of their offensive coordinator, who since his arrival in January from North Texas harped on the importance of the group’s chemistry. However subtle it was, Harrell understood how a listless line could sink an entire offense. So in the weight room, the line always worked together, and when the team ate, they were encouraged to eat together.
Then, one Sunday, the group took it one step further. The players gathered at one of the complexes where most of the line lived, plopped down a few pounds of meat and vegetables, and got to grilling.
For a line replacing three key seniors, it was a vital exercise. Last year’s line endured its share of criticism, as the unit allowed 30 sacks and struggled to create room for a run game that finished 10th in the Pac-12. Only two starters from that front, left tackle Austin Jackson and right guard Andrew Vorhees, were set to return, leaving an unsettling situation from last season even more uncertain heading into this one.
But after a summer of barbecues and bonding, the offensive line has been a point of preseason pride for USC coach Clay Helton. With the season opener Saturday against Fresno State and its stout defensive front approaching, there are few position groups where Helton has been more positive.
“We’ve been waiting on this group to really grow up,” Helton said, “and when you look at this front five … it’s really a group that’s going to be the most improved on our team.”
Whether that optimism will prove misguided remains to be seen, but the group has jelled as much as one can without an enemy defense to oppose it.
For all the talk of competition elsewhere, USC’s first-team offensive line has remained entirely unchanged since the start of call camp, with left guard Alijah Vera-Tucker, center Brett Neilon and right tackle Jalen McKenzie gaining a stranglehold on their respective spots last spring.
That consistency is no accident.
“The more reps you can get with the same guys next to you, the better you’re going to be,” Harrell said. “Every week, I think they’ll play better and better because that’s just one more week they will have had together.”
But chemistry up front is more complicated than simply standing shoulder to shoulder, day after day, and that’s where the barbecues came in.
“Talking, sharing stories, laughing,” Neilon said. “We’re a great group of guys who like each other and enjoy each other’s company. It translates on the field.”
After the first barbecue, the line threw another. And another. They tried other outings, including a trip to a golf course, where their skills translated far less. They even handed out awards to rag on each other, the most brutal of all going to Vera-Tucker, who won “worst swing” after he swung his club straight into the sod, missing the ball entirely.
In his playing career at Texas Tech, Harrell had seen firsthand how a bonded offensive line could make a difference. Some of the linemen his senior season had played next to each other for three years. They understood exactly what to expect, up and down the line.
“They were like an impenetrable wall up there,” Harrell said. “I could do whatever I wanted.”
It may be a while before that kind of camaraderie takes hold for USC along its offensive line. Barbecues can only do so much. But on the doorstep of his first season as coordinator with the Trojans, with all eyes on his revamped line, Harrell is confident in what’s cooking up front.