USC football spring preview: Offensive line begins search for starters

Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy
Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy /

USC football’s offensive line will remain a focus for improvement in Spring Camp 2019 as the Trojans replace three key starters from last year’s front.

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One of the biggest disappointments of the 2018 USC football season was the performance of the veteran offensive line.

In 2019, the Trojans will lose three starters from that group, hoping that new faces in a new offensive system under a new offensive line coach will yield better results.

Tim Drevno has his work cut out for him sorting out the big battles on the line while improving fundamentals and technique across the board.

Roster Rundown

Departing (4):Jordan Austin, Chris Brown, Chuma Edoga, Toa Lobendahn

Returning (11):OT Clayton Bradley (RS-Sr.)OT Bernard Schirmer (RS-Jr.)*OT Austin Jackson (Jr.)OT Jalen McKenzie (RS-So.)OT Liam Douglass (RS-Fr.)OG Jacob Daniel (RS-Sr.)OG Frank Martin (RS-Jr.)*OG Andrew Vorhees (Jr.)OG Alijah Vera-Tucker (RS-So.)C Brett Neilon (RS-So.)C Justin Dedich (RS-Fr.)

Spring Enrollees (1):OG Gino Quinones (Fr.)

Fall Enrollees (2):OT Jason Rodriguez (Fr.)OG Tilini Livai (Fr.)

USC signed the nation’s No. 2 centers in the recruiting classes of 2017 and 2018 for just this moment. With Toa Lobendahn graduating, it falls to redshirt sophomore Brett Neilon and redshirt freshman Justin Dedich to duke it out for his starting job.

At right guard, the Trojans return two-year starter Andrew Vorhees, but the left has an opening in the wake of Chris Brown’s graduation. Alijah Vera-Tucker was already splitting time with Vorhees, so he figures to be a key player this spring.

Depth at guard isn’t the strongest. Redshirt junior Frank Martin has yet to make his mark with spring providing a clear opportunity. Redshirt senior Jacob Daniel, who is two years removed from converting from the defensive line, is also back to compete for playing time.

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Spring enrollee Gino Quinones will add another body to the mix, though it remains to be seen if the high school defensive lineman will complete the switch to the offensive line.

Tackle is where things get much more complicated.

Austin Jackson is the lone returning starter and his spring will be less about competing and more about continuing to sharpen his game ahead of what could be a critical junior campaign.

Across the way at right tackle, there are more than a few contenders who will be aiming to set themselves up for playing time in the fall.

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Jalen McKenzie replaced Chuma Edoga when he was out injured in 2018, so he will certainly be in the mix to step into his vacated starting role. Clayton Bradley and Bernard Schirmer are also likely to be considered for the job.

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On the one hand, only one of McKenzie, Bradley and Schirmer can rise to the top of the depth chart. On the other hand, a strong enough competition between the trio will show the strength in depth the Trojans may already have at tackle. And that’s even before the arrival of four-star prospect Jason Rodriguez in the fall.

Biggest Battle

There is intrigue at guard and tackle, but none of it rises to the pure battle expected between Neilon and Dedich at center.

Both bring an aggressive mindset to the position, with the right size and technical ability to thrive. And with any luck, they will prove to be more reliable snappers of the ball.

Really, the only thing that separates the two is experience. Having started one game last season, Neilon has an edge going into spring. Dedich could close the gap quickly.

Player to Watch

This spring may become all about USC’s class of 2017 when it comes to the offensive line. The Trojans brought in five linemen in that class. Two of them are already starters. The other three are in competition for the three open starting jobs up front.

Vera-Tucker and Neilon feel like favorites to ascend to No. 1 spots. McKenzie is similarly well-placed, but his climb figures to be a bit more uncertain. That’s why he’s one to keep an eye on this spring.

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USC has two scholarships to use in the transfer portal, if they so choose. The temptation to spend one of those on a tackle this summer could be a direct reflection of McKenzie’s progress.