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Austin Jackson’s departure and holes to fill leave USC in another offseason of uncertainty

USC’s Austin Jackson blocks during a game against Notre Dame on Oct. 12, 2019, in South Bend, Ind.
USC’s Austin Jackson blocks during a game against Notre Dame on Oct. 12, 2019, in South Bend, Ind.
(Joe Robbins / Getty Images)

Even before Austin Jackson declared early for the NFL draft, leaving a gaping hole on the left side of his offensive line, Clay Helton knew USC would soon be in desperate need of reinforcements up front.

Depth along the line had dwindled in recent years. So his staff spent the last recruiting cycle replenishing as best they could. The Trojans signed six offensive linemen to national letters of intent in December, and on an otherwise disappointing Signing Day, Helton repeatedly praised the hefty class he’d inherited.

“It was a big man’s day,” he said, with a smile.

But for all the depth added with that December haul, Jackson’s largely expected departure still leaves the Trojans in an unenviable position. After a season in which the front took a huge step forward, USC will be tasked with replacing both of its towering bookends along the offensive line.

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For an offense that could be among the nation’s best next season, that’s no small problem.

Left guard Alijah Vera-Tucker, whom Pro Football Focus graded as USC’s top lineman last season, announced that he will return for his redshirt junior season.

As the deadline for early draft declarations arrives on Monday, the Trojans aren’t planning on losing any other underclassmen outside of Jackson. Wideout Tyler Vaughns, defensive tackle Jay Tufele, and right guard Alijah Vera-Tucker all announced in recent days that they’d be returning for another season.

That’s the good news.

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With Vera-Tucker back, the rest of the Trojans’ improving line should remain mostly intact. The rising redshirt junior is expected to return to his left guard spot, while Brett Neilon again takes the helm at center. Both Andrew Voorhees, who started at guard in 2016 and 2017, and Justin Dedich, who filled in for Neilon at center last season, could contend for the other guard spot vacated by Jalen McKenzie, who is expected to kick out to right tackle, replacing departing senior Drew Richmond.

But at left tackle, where Jackson started 25 straight games over two seasons, there are no obvious answers.

Frank Martin II, a former four-star recruit from Santa Ana Mater Dei, worked as the second-team right tackle ahead of the bowl game. But over his first three years at USC, Martin never saw the field. Last season, he played in just three games.

USC offensive lineman Alijah Vera-Tucker is one of many Trojans returning for the 2020 season.
USC offensive lineman Alijah Vera-Tucker is one of many Trojans returning for the 2020 season.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

In spite of that inexperience, Martin will likely open spring practice as the first-team left tackle.

How long he’ll hold on to the spot remains to be seen. Jason Rodriguez, a former four-star tackle recruit out of Oak Hills, should make a serious push for the position after redshirting last season. Liam Jimmons could also be an option, following an impressive switch from defensive to offensive line last season. He finished the year as USC’s starting right guard, with McKenzie shifting to right tackle for the bowl game.

The Trojans have no shortage of options at left tackle, even before considering the six freshmen set to join in the fall or possible transfers currently waiting in the portal. But whether any of those options are capable of replacing perhaps the Trojans’ most irreplaceable offensive player is another question entirely.

The 6-foot-6, 310-pound tackle wasn’t just the most talented player on USC’s offensive line. He was a steadying force on a front that was anything but steady before last season.

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USC offensive coordinator Graham Harrell interviewed with the Philadelphia Eagles for the same position. Harrell recently signed a multi-year contract with the Trojans.

In 2019, Jackson was the first Trojan lineman named to the All-Pac-12 first team since Zach Banner in 2016, in spite of missing all of USC’s summer workouts to donate bone marrow to his younger sister. He’ll more than likely be a first-round pick come April, too, solidifying him as the first USC lineman since Matt Kalil in 2012 to be drafted in the top two rounds.

Without him, the prospect of breaking in two new offensive tackles against Alabama and its vaunted defensive front next fall is undoubtedly daunting. But considering what other contenders have lost this offseason, the circumstances could certainly be worse.

After a stellar season in which he was named Pac-12 offensive freshman of the year, quarterback Kedon Slovis should take a step forward. The backfield remains entirely intact, and the return of Vaughns at wideout leaves USC with arguably the deepest and most talented receiving corps in the nation. Defensively, only linebacker John Houston and defensive end Christian Rector, must be replaced.

The Trojans should have an answer for most of those departures. But with Jackson leaving early for the NFL and their offensive line set for another offseason of uncertainty, questions at left tackle won’t be leaving USC any time soon.


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