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Alijah-Vera Tucker is gone, but USC is confident it can replace him on offensive line

USC guard Alijah Vera-Tucker in the first half during against Arizona.
Alijah Vera-Tucker was expected to be USC’s left tackle this season, but he opted to leave school to prepare for the NFL draft.
(Rick Scuteri / Associated Press)

When Alijah Vera-Tucker announced last week his plans to skip the Pac-12’s postponed season to prepare for the NFL draft, it came as no surprise to Tim Drevno. The USC offensive line coach had spoken a few times to Vera-Tucker and his father prior to his decision, and all along, he sensed the Trojans’ top returning lineman was leaning toward leaving early.

With Vera-Tucker a potential late first-round pick, Drevno couldn’t blame him. But as USC’s projected starter at left tackle, Vera-Tucker’s departure was about to make Drevno’s job a lot more difficult.

“Is it a blow that Alijah left? Yeah,” Drevno said. “He’s a really good player and a great person and a great leader. But I know we have the right guys in the room. We’ll get the job done. Somehow, we’ll fix the problem.”

Even before Vera-Tucker’s decision, USC’s offensive front had its share of issues to iron out. Both starting tackles from last season had departed, including first-round selection Austin Jackson, and on the left side, the Trojans were without a clear replacement. Vera-Tucker moved over to the tackle spot out of necessity this offseason, having started every game last season on the interior.

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Without him, USC has no choice but to shuffle some more. Redshirt junior Jalen McKenzie, who spent most of last season at right guard and was slotted to start this one at right tackle, should get the first crack on the left side. He has the experience, with 14 collegiate starts, and the size, at 6 feet 5 and 315 pounds, to successfully transition into the position.

But McKenzie won’t be the only option. USC continues to look for experienced linemen via transfer, after successfully mining a starting right tackle (Drew Richmond) from the NCAA transfer portal last summer. One top transfer tackle was, in fact, ready to commit to the Trojans earlier this summer, but went elsewhere out of fear the season would be postponed.

If that pursuit fails, the role of blindside protector could well fall to an incoming freshman.

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Neither Jonah Monheim nor Courtland Ford have been able to put on full pads or take part in contact practice, due to COVID-19 precautions in Los Angeles County. Still, both have stood out to Drevno, who insists he has no qualms about relying on a freshman at the line’s most critical position.

During his first stint as USC’s offensive line coach, in 2014, Drevno started three freshmen, including at left tackle, after injuries hit hard up front. The Trojans finished that season 9-4, with freshman Toa Lobendahn leading the charge at left tackle.

With several additional months for players to add strength, learn the offense, and refine technique, Drevno wonders if this group of freshmen might be more prepared than in past years. That certainly seems to be the case with Monheim and Ford, as early reviews from voluntary workouts have been especially positive.

“I think sometimes when a guy comes in as a freshman, there’s a look in their eye, like, ‘Oh I can do this,’ ” Drevno said. “You know it’s not too big for them. … I think they’ve shown that.”

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After being shut down because of positive cases of the coronavirus, the USC football and men’s water polo programs have been cleared to work out.

Along USC’s uncertain line, only the center spot appears to be secure. Redshirt junior Brett Neilon started 11 games at the position last season and emerged as an offensive leader. His backup, junior Justin Dedich, is expected to shift over to left guard; though, redshirt sophomore Liam Douglass has also impressed during workouts.

Redshirt senior Liam Jimmons also seems to have played his way into a larger role. After impressing at right guard in his Holiday Bowl start last December, Jimmons could be on his way to “a breakout year” at either right tackle or right guard. Andrew Vorhees, who has 20 starts at right guard, will also be in the mix.

How those puzzle pieces fit will remain unclear until contact practice resumes. But experience, Drevno reiterated, won’t be the deciding factor.

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“Sometimes you bring great players in, and if the kid is young, he might make mistakes,” Drevno said. “But is he better than the older guy? If he is, it’s worth your time to live with the mistakes. I think all coaches get caught up in, ‘Well, I put this guy out there, and he knows what to do, knows his assignments.’ You keep wasting your time and spinning your wheels, when you got a younger guy who is going to be an unbelievable player. Why not play the guy that’s younger, get him reps, and just live with the mistakes?”


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