Last week, the USC Trojans earned its first guard commitment of the 2017 class from Jalen McKenzie. Out of Concord, California, McKenzie is an underrated recruit this cycle in large part due to an ACL injury he sustained at the beginning of his junior season. This limited the exposure he was able to gain during the recruiting process, but the Trojans were optimistic about his performances as a senior and decided to pursue him as a part of the 2017 class.
Rated as a three-star and the 21st best offensive guard in the nation, McKenzie was not a very highly touted prospect. The lineman received offers from other notable schools such as UCLA, Arizona State, Miami (FL), and Utah, but his injury kept his recruitment largely under the radar. McKenzie will be attending USC next fall, but even his commitment to the Trojans comes with a minor asterisk.
It is believed that McKenzie will be a blue shirt recruit, meaning that his scholarship will count against USC’s scholarship total in the 2018 class even though he will be joining the team next fall. McKenzie’s status in the program is not impacted by this designation, it merely pushes off when his scholarship counts against the 85 total. USC has been known to do this with other lesser touted recruits (Deontay Burnett is one of the most recent players who did this) who meet the qualifications of not receiving an in-home visit or taking an official visit to the school. This move should work out well for the Trojans as the 2018 class is weak on offensive lineman out west, so McKenzie’s commitment should allow for Clay Helton and the staff to put further emphasis on other position groups.
In regards to how McKenzie is as a player, the big lineman is talented, but he will need to improve physically before seeing playing time in cardinal and gold. At 6’4.5” and 307 lbs., McKenzie is a massive player who unfortunately lets this weight show a little too much in his play. He has solid technique in that he does an excellent job of playing with a low pad-level and using his legs to push defensive lineman backwards, but he is not particularly athletic.
Part of McKenzie’s issue with his foot speed can certainly be attributed to a relatively recent knee injury. That being said, offensive coordinator Tee Martin often uses his guards to pull on running plays, and if McKenzie is too slow to hit the hole before a defender, he will struggle to see the field. Damien Mama also had problems in this area at the beginning of his career, but strength and conditioning coach Ivan Lewis did a great job of reshaping his body and dramatically improving his athleticism. McKenzie is not nearly the size Mama was when entering college, but if he can put in the work to gain an extra step or two, his outlook in terms of playing time will be much better.
McKenzie may not be the most athletic offensive lineman, but his excellent pad level allows him to be effective in run blocking. McKenzie has tremendous size and measurables for the guard position, and this is clear when he is able to get his weight behind his blocks. Using a strong leg drive and a low pad level, McKenzie can easily push lineman back to the second level. His first punch could improve, but when he is able to get his hands in place and drive his legs, McKenzie can be a handful for opposing defensive linemen.
McKenzie is far from the perfect guard, but it is easy to see how many of his weaknesses could be a product of not being on the field for an entire year. Rebuilding muscle, speed, and quickness after serious knee injuries takes a lot of time (especially when athletes are not in a professional rehab program). McKenzie may be a year and a half removed from the injury, but he probably will not be fully back up to speed for upwards of another year.
The Trojans are returning most of their interior lineman sans Mama, so McKenzie’s development should be paramount in 2017. SC should have no reason to rush their new prospect into early playing time as McKenzie is the ideal recruit who will benefit from a redshirt year. Regaining the strength and athleticism lost from a serious injury should be much easier for McKenzie under the supervision of high quality strength and conditioning staff.
With Viane Talamaivao, Nico Falah, and Toa Lobendahn all entering their senior seasons, plenty of snaps will be available come the 2018 season. By that time, McKenzie’s physicality should be much improved and he could be ready to compete for a role in the offensive line rotation. This timeline may be the best case scenario, but considering that McKenzie still showed flashes of dominance in his first season back from his injury, it would not be all that surprising if he can fully regain his mojo by that time.
The 2017 class is closing strong for the Trojans and adding a high upside offensive lineman whose scholarship will not count until next cycle is another smart move by the coaching staff. USC’s monster offensive line class of 2013 is beginning to move on to the next level, opening up many opportunities for youngsters to come in over the next couple seasons. McKenzie will certainly need a redshirt season to continue his recovery, but if he is able to improve his areas of weakness, he could certainly be in the mix for playing time come 2018.