USC has a lot of work to do to find right combination on offensive line
The tackle to his left declared for the draft. The tackle to his right graduated. The left guard next to him moved to left tackle, after briefly considering leaving for the NFL, while the guard on his right side will likely shift out to right tackle.
After an offseason of upheaval up front, Brett Neilon is the lone player still standing in the same place along USC’s offensive line. How the pieces will fit around him is one of the most pressing questions facing the Trojans over the next three weeks of camp.
Coaches are counting on Neilon, a junior center, to be the centerpiece in establishing the chemistry USC is searching for up front.
“When you’re trying to get five guys to play as one, you have to have one guy that can get everyone on the same page and make sure we’re all pulling the rope in the same direction,” offensive coordinator Graham Harrell said. “That’s Brett’s job, so on the field for him it’s a ton of responsibility. The fact that he has as many reps as he has and he’s as smart as he is really helps that cause.”
USC coach Clay Helton says he’s noticed benefits from the Trojans’ unprecedented start to an unusual, pandemic-shortened season.
It also doesn’t hurt to have one of the Pac-12’s top lineman back. Alijah Vera-Tucker’s decision to opt in and play after initially declaring for the draft was clearly a major coup for a USC offense short on proven options up front.
“After a lot of thought, I thought, why not?” Vera-Tucker said Tuesday. “Why not come back and be with my brothers, compete for a Pac-12 championship? Nothing really changed. The reason I came back last year was to do the same exact thing.”
But Vera-Tucker returns to far less depth and far more uncertainty up front this year than last. The All-Pac-12 guard will shift to left tackle, answering the most glaring of those questions. Jalen McKenzie, who started at right guard, is expected to move to right tackle.
The equation beyond that remains unclear as of the first full week of training camp continues. So far, the plan has been to experiment with various combinations, in hopes of finding the best five, regardless of position. Andrew Vorhees, the Trojans’ most experienced option at guard, has tried the left and right sides. Liam Jimmons, another starting candidate at guard, has worked at guard and tackle. Justin Dedich, the No. 2 center last season, has tried left guard, in addition to being Neilon’s direct backup.
USC opens training camp ready after the coronavirus shutdown eager to address depth issues at offensive line and linebacker after injuries to key players.
Even USC’s six freshmen linemen have seen opportunities to establish themselves. At the very least, their size — all at least 6 feet 5 — has made an impression.
“They’re big guys, and they’re actually grasping the offense really well so far,” Neilon said. “I think they’re going to be very special and some of them are going to have to contribute for sure.”
But in a delicate search for chemistry, constant shuffling of the offensive line has its downsides. The more experimenting, the fewer opportunities the line has to build a rapport.
That’s a fine line the Trojans plan to continue tiptoeing for now.
“Our success is going to start up front,” Harrell said, “and with the amount of experience we have going on up front and the talent level of those guys, especially if we can stay pretty healthy, I feel really, really great about where we are. I think with that crew, they’re going to make us so much better. It’s going to be hard to stop us.”
After Bru McCoy transferred twice, overcame a mysterious illness and sat out a full season, it’s not hard to understand why he might feel a sense of urgency to contribute.
Still, the redshirt freshman will have to wait a bit longer to establish his role in a deep USC receiving corps. McCoy continues to deal with a hamstring injury that’s limited him early on. He’ll need more repetitions, Harrell said, to unlock his potential.
A look at five players who could decide USC’s fate as the Trojans prepare for their season opener against Arizona State on Nov. 7.
Even so, Harrell raved about what the former five-star prospect might do once he’s finally unencumbered.
“When he’s in there, he’s different,” Harrell said of McCoy. “He’s very explosive. He’s hard to cover because not only is he very explosive, but he’s also strong and big.”
McCoy is not the only young wideout expected to play a part this season. Freshman Gary Bryant Jr. has turned heads over the first few days of camp, as USC has moved the four-star speedster all around the offense.
“They’re going to have to play big roles for us,” Harrell said of the two young wideouts. “We really need them to continue to improve, to continue to grow, and the more and more comfortable they get, obviously you’ll see less and less hesitation. They’ll become better and better every day. Those two have a lot of talent, and I think they’re going to contribute a lot for us.”
Go beyond the scoreboard
Get the latest on L.A.'s teams in the daily Sports Report newsletter.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.