USC’s offensive line has been an up-and-down position group since the 2017 season, while many thought poor offensive line play thwarted USC’s playoff bid.
Last season, USC’s offensive line was more consistent, but was still one of USC’s weaker position groups. In 2018, USC ranked 81st in the country with 10 fumbles lost, many of which occurred as JT Daniels struggled with ball security after being sacked. Those are on Daniels, but are a symptom of poor offensive line play as well. USC’s offensive line allowed 27 sacks, which ranked a mediocre 67th in the country.
The Trojan line will try to prevent the sacks and fumbles that plagued the team last season. But they will be doing so without seniors Toa Lobendahn, Chuma Edoga, and Chris Brown. Lobendahn was a starter at tackle and center in this three years starting for the Trojans; he was a team captain. Named as an honorable mention in the All-Pac 12 teams, Lobendahn was picked up as an undrafted free agent by the Jets a few months ago. Edoga was the Trojans’ right tackle last season. His play earned him All-Pac 12 second team honors and a contract with the New York Jets, getting picked in the third round. Brown was a senior who had consistently started at guard for the Trojans. The Chargers picked him up as an undrafted free agent.
So the Trojans will be without three upperclassmen leaders on the line, all of them were seen by NFL GM’s as having pro-level talent. But this also poses an opportunity for fresh faces to grow. So here are USC’s projected starters going into the 2019 season.
LT: Austin Jackson
LG: Alijah Vera-Tucker
C: Brett Neilon
RG: Andrew Vorhees
RT: Jalen McKenzie (backup to Edoga), Drew Richmond (TEN transfer), Liam Jimmons (former DLine, spring showcase)
Most of these players will be green, with only Austin Jackson and Andrew Vorhees having a season of starts under their belt. Vorhees can play guard or tackle, but he has made his living in the right guard spot, where he has started over twenty times over his Trojan career. Jackson is also entrenched at the left tackle spot, where he started last season. So with these two incumbents, who are the fresh faces?
Alijah Vera-Tucker is replacing Chris Brown at left guard. The redshirt sophomore has prototypical size. At 6-foot-4 and weighing 310 pounds, Vera-Tucker has earned the trust of the coaches since the beginning of spring camp. For a position that seemed to be up for grabs at the beginning of camp, Vera-Tucker took the starting spot and didn’t let go.
Brett Neilon was a surprise start at center. The Trojan roster had two talented center prospects; both Neilon and Justin Dedich sat behind Lobendahn at center last season. Both were four-star recruits, and ranked the number two center for their respective year. But the redshirt sophomore Neilon earned the trust of the coaches early, leaving redshirt freshman Dedich as second on the depth chart. Many believed that the center spot would come down to these two, but few expected Neilon to take such a commanding lead in the spring. Last season, Lobendahn had some issues with snapping the ball well. Though the new USC center will not have Lobendahn’s pedigree or experience, USC fans will certainly expect better snaps of Neilon. This should help Daniels get a better rhythm from snap to throw.
Of the listed projected starters, the right tackle position is conspicuously missing. That’s because unlike the other offensive line positions, right tackle is wide open for the taking. The incumbent is Jalen McKenzie, who backed up Chuma Edoga last year. Then there is transfer Drew Richmond, who has the most pedigree. The dark horse is Liam Jimmons, who converted from the defensive line. Newcomer Jason Rodriguez, a four-star recruit, may even get in on the action. I think McKenzie will eventually win the starting spot, but he will need to work for his lunch. Injuries kept him out of USC’s spring showcase, where Jimmons started. Still, McKenzie has more experience than Jimmons and Rodriguez. That leads his next competitor to be Richmond.
I’ve written a piece detailing what Richmond brings to the USC offensive line a while back, and I stand by my analysis. Richmond is coming from a conventional offensive system in Tennessee, and he may be unaccustomed to the space that Graham Harrell requires offensive linemen to play with. He may also lack the quickness that is required of offensive lineman in Harrell’s spread offense.
This USC offensive line has had the least continuity since three seasons ago. There are only two returning starters, and three incoming players with less than a season of playing experience. On the other hand, the Trojans have more depth in Dedich and Rodriguez than they’ve had in past years. This is a hurdle but also an opportunity. It’s up to the group of starting lineman to grow and gel over the course of the season.