O-Line looks to newcomers, starts hitting reps

Redshirt junior Brett Neilon in practice

Redshirt junior Brett Neilon in practice

Redshirt junior Brett Neilon will be key in developing the Trojans’ young group of offensive linemen. Photo courtesy of John McGillen / USC Athletics

After nine months of being out of the pads, members of the Trojan offensive line are getting back into the rhythm and pace of full-contact practice as they focus on building chemistry at the line of scrimmage. 

With talent like redshirt junior offensive linemen Brett Neilon, Jalen McKenzie, Andrew Vorhees and Alijah Vera-Tucker returning, experience will be key. The group will look to find the combination that works best and ease the learning curve for more inexperienced linemen. Redshirt senior Liam Jimmons and redshirt sophomore Justin Dedich will battle for a starting spot on the line, while rising newcomers freshmen Casey Collier and Caadyn Stephen will fight for time in the trenches as well.

“You got guys with lots of experience out there — we got to figure out the best five and how we can piece them together to give us the best chance,” offensive coordinator Graham Harrell said in a virtual press conference Tuesday. “We’re probably gonna have to play a combination of a lot of those guys and then behind them we have guys that don’t have much experience but are really, really talented.” 

Neilon expressed his confidence and enthusiasm to work with the rising linemen on technique and using their athleticism to be a consistent force against opponents.  

“The first thing that stands out is their size; very big group, very long group like [Collier], super long arms, very tall, same with [freshman offensive lineman] Andres [Dewerk], very tall, very big; [freshman offensive lineman] Courtland [Ford], I mean, you go down the list — they’re big guys and they are actually grasping the offense really well so far,” Neilon said. “I think they’re doing good things and I think they’re gonna be very special and some of them are gonna have to contribute for sure.”

Harrell and Neilon both were excited to see Vera-Tucker return to the lineup, which Vera-Tucker said was a decision that had been on his mind since the minute the Pac-12 announced a conference-only season Sept. 24.

Vera-Tucker said he looks forward to leading the process of building chemistry with the group of linemen and starting to ramp up speed of practice and processing coverage.

“Well, first off, it took a lot of thought,” Vera-Tucker said about deciding to return. “Definitely was something that I thought about as soon as they announced the football season was returning. That’s when I thought, ‘Why not come back and compete with my brothers, you know, compete for a Pac-12 Championship?’”

Though the offensive line, unlike other position groups on the team, can look to its depth to help protect sophomore quarterback Kedon Slovis’ blind side, the group did lose players like Austin Jackson, one of three former USC offensive tackles now playing in the NFL. USC’s success in transitioning linemen to the NFL speaks to the type of production that Harrell and offensive line coach Tim Drevno expect from their group. 

Looking beyond the line, one spot the Trojans will also look to fill is the one left by the graduation of wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. Harrell sees two-sport standout and sophomore wide receiver Drake London stepping up. 

As a freshman, London started nine games and collected 567 yards and five touchdowns across 39 receptions. 

“Drake London is as talented of a player as I’ve been around,” Harrell said. “To combine the size that he has with his body control and stuff like that, and his ball skills, his toughness, I think that he creates a natural matchup.”

As Harrell enters his second year with USC, he feels confident in perfecting his Air Raid offense and other familiar techniques rather than relying primarily on unpredictable schemes. 

“Our philosophy offensively is to just go do what you do and be really good at it,” Harrell said. “I don’t think that people will completely go away from who they are … but at the same time, we’ll be ready for whatever they have, whatever they throw at us.”