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Center Justin Dedich provides a solid contingency plan for USC

USC receiver Drake London celebrates with Bru McCoy, Tyler Vaughns and Justin Dedich after a touchdown catch.
USC receiver Drake London, left, celebrates with Bru McCoy, Tyler Vaughns and Justin Dedich after a touchdown catch against Arizona State. Dedich is expected to start at center this week for injured starter Brett Neilon.
(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

Brett Neilon began this season as the only USC lineman not to change positions. Now, after suffering an ankle sprain in the opener, he’ll be the first lineman out of the lineup.

The Trojans are expecting to be without their starting center on Saturday against Arizona. Clay Helton said Neilon will test out his injured ankle on Thursday, but the USC coach admitted that USC’s junior center is “highly doubtful.”

Considering the relative lack of depth on the line, the looming threat of injuries up front remained a major concern heading into the season. Fortunately for Helton, there’s no deeper position on the Trojans offensive line than center.

Justin Dedich started the final two games at center in 2019 after Neilon suffered a strained calf, and ahead of this season was viewed as a possible starter at center or either of USC’s two guard spots. Now, for at least one week, he’ll get another chance to prove he belongs.

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USC’s comeback victory over Arizona State showed that the offense has improved in Year 2 under Graham Harrell.

“There’s no doubt in our mind that we won’t skip a beat,” Helton said. “He just happens to be a year younger than Brett, and they were in a fierce competition that Brett won out. But he didn’t sulk. He didn’t pout or feel sorry for himself. Just kept on training and improving and preparing for his opportunity, and here it is against Arizona as a starter.”

USC might not have proven depth along its line, but it has worked on contingency plans up front more than it would in any normal season. The threat of an offensive lineman testing positive for the coronavirus — and, as a result, wiping out half of the position group due to contact tracing — led coaches to try more combinations up front than ever before.

That meant regularly working Dedich in with the first-team line during camp.

“He’s been in that first-string huddle,” Helton said. “He feels comfortable with it, and the guys feel comfortable with him making the calls. Obviously, he’s gotten a full week of prep with the starters. It’s not something that’s brand new for us.”

The defense USC faces on Saturday, however, could look entirely new. Arizona’s opener against Utah was postponed due to positive tests and contact tracing at Utah, leaving USC without any video of new Arizona coordinator Paul Rhoads’ defense.

The Trojans don’t look like a team that can contend for a College Football Playoff spot, but Clay Helton’s team showed Saturday it won’t give up.

“When you don’t have a scouted look, you have to really focus on your execution and what you believe in and do the things your kids are good at,” Helton said on Tuesday. “You don’t do a lot of new things when you don’t know what you’re going to see. You lean on what you’re good at, what your kids can execute.”

Those strengths shouldn’t change with Dedich stepping in at center. The redshirt sophomore played 21 snaps in place of Neilon against Arizona State and graded out better than his counterpart, according to Pro Football Focus.

Helton later named Dedich one of USC’s three offensive players of the week.

“Usually your center is the rock of your offensive line,” Helton said. “We just happen to have two bowling ball rocks that look like twin brothers, between Brett and Justin.”

Etc.


USC will be without defensive tackle Brandon Pili for a second consecutive game, as Pili recovers from surgery on his finger.


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