Reviving a pledge USC head coach Clay Helton and offensive coordinator Graham Harrell made before spring practice, new Trojans offensive line coach Clay McGuire says the team will indeed rotate and try out some new looks up front over the final two weeks of camp.
To this point, the first team offensive line has remain unchanged. (The spring showcase Saturday was an exception as the first and second-team OLs were mashed together to form two even units for the purposes of the scrimmage).
“There’s guys showing up every single day and I’m like, ‘OK, I wonder what this guy can do with the 1s, or I wonder what this guy can do at left tackle, or I wonder what this guy can do at right guard.’ We’re going to start mixing and matching and shuffling things around and kind of seeing what people look like at other positions so we can have a good foundation going into fall camp of where we want to put guys,” McGuire said Tuesday morning.
He noted that the staff wanted to get an extended look at this initial first unit grouping — LT Courtland Ford, LG Andrew Vorhees, C Brett Neilon, RG Liam Jimmons, RT Jalen McKenzie — and that really they’ve only had five full-padded practices to evaluate that bunch together, with three practices being helmets only (including a prep session for the spring showcase) and then the showcase scrimmage on Saturday.
“We’ve only had five true spring ball practices. So we’re trying to get a little evaluation in there and see where we’re at. We’ve got six practices to make it uncomfortable,” McGuire said. “We’re going to flip flop some guys, put some guys in different positions, and kind of re-order the lineup a little bit, just to figure out and see who our best five to eight guys are. When we figure that, when we go into fall camp, we’ll have a really good idea of how we’re going to play this season with our guys.”
In the meantime, McGuire offered his assessment of what he’s seen so far, with emphasis on the second-year linemen looking to impress the new coach.
Ford has looked comfortable at the first-team left tackle spot and played as well as anybody else on the unit. Casey Collier, who was not active for the spring game, has taken all the second-team left tackle reps, and it sounds like there may still be a learning curve in his development while his long-term upside remains very high. Jonah Monheim has been the second-team right tackle all spring and has looked consistently solid. And Andrew Milek has been adjusting to the move to center, manning the snaps for the second-team.
Here’s what McGuire said about each of those guys …
Ford: “He’s a guy that’s shown up every day with a great attitude. He works really hard. He competes. He has a really good skill set. I think we’ve got a couple guys in that room that really have the potential to be really good tackles. Courtland has done a really good job. Every day he shows up and you’re getting his best. He’s in-tune. He’s focused. He’s in there. He’s not somewhere else. With that approach, he’s done some really good things for us. He looks like he’s going to be a good option for us at the tackle position, as well as some other guys.”
Monheim: “Jonah’s had a really good camp. Jonah’s really talented. He really reminds me of a guy that I coached at Washington State, a guy named Joe Dahl who was a great player for us up there and is still playing in the NFL right now. But I think he’s having a really good camp, he’s really sharp. Not a real vocal guy, but every day he shows up and is extremely consistent and does a really good job out there.”
Collier: “Casey is a guy that has incredible talent. I think a lot of the new terminology and things like that have been hard for him early on, but the last practice he had was the best practice he had. But when he knows what he’s doing and when it’s clicking for him he has incredible ability. So when we put it all together for him, he has the ability to be a rare talent, and so I think that’s coming down the road. Casey is a great kid and he works really hard every single day. And at one point he really has a real opportunity to be a special player here.”
Milek: “Milek has really done a phenomenal job, to come in and he gives us the opportunity to move Justin Dedich around who’s having a great spring. Dedich is probably, you could argue right now through camp one of the toughest, hardest players, hardest-working players we have out there. Because what Milek has been able to do at center has given us the ability to move DeDe around and give him the opportunity to really push and compete at other spots than just the center position. Those two guys have been extremely valuable for us to work different lineups and get different people in the rotation so that we can get looks at other people at different spots.”
Milek also generated praise from McKenzie, when he was asked if any of the young linemen have stood out to him.
“I’ve been really proud of Andrew Milek … being able to come in as a new guy — it’s his first spring [at] center and just being able to try to take everything in and learning every day, I’ve seen his improvement every day and his confidence grow,” McKenzie said. “I think that’s the biggest thing is seeing guys’ confidence grow and seeing guys get a real foothold in the system.”
Changes under McGuire
A clear statement was sent this offseason when USC fired offensive line coach Tim Drevno and brought in McGuire, who has an extensive history working in Air Raid offenses under Mike Leach and Kliff Kingsbury at Washington State and Texas Tech (among other stops, both an OL coach and RBs coach at times).
The obvious takeaway is that McGuire, who was most recently at Texas State, knows Harrell’s offense and what the O-line needs to do to best function in this system, and that maybe Drevno — despite producing likely back-to-back first-round draft picks at left tackle — perhaps wasn’t as natural a fit for the offense.
So that raises the question, what exactly is McGuire doing differently so far?
“Obviously coming in, the offense hasn’t changed. It’s jut some of the terminology and some of the things where my philosophies and principles we’re trying to teach and incorporate has. It’s not really new, but there’s some newness to it,” he said. “This is the first spring ball they’ve had in two years. I know they got one practice last year. Just getting to work on the continuity and the development of players is huge right now. Things, to me, what I’ve been seeing is every day we’re getting better. That’s the ultimate goal, for the group to continue to have a steady process of development to reaching our ultimate goal of winning every game. I think things are going well.”
Neilon and McKenzie were both asked what perspective they could share in terms of how things are running differently or being taught in a new way under McGuire.
“He just has a lot of experience in this type of offense. Coaching at Washington State when they turned it around with Coach Leach, and then obviously at Texas State too where they ran a similar offense, I think that’s helped tremendously to have a mentor like that that’s been in the offense for years and years and has a ton of experience and has also coached really good offensive linemen, like Andre Dillard up at Washington State,” Neilon said. “I think technique-wise, what we’re doing really fits this offense. And also how we’re identifying things. It’s really going to benefit us a lot. …
“Just the way we’re pass-setting now is different. And also, he preaches a lot of physicality. We’ve been super in-tune with goal line and short yardage and being physical in the run. Even just IDing the runs, too, there might be a change there that you see. It’s super exciting. While he is super experienced with the pass sets, he’s really aggressive and wants us to run the ball. So those are some big changes.”
Said McKenzie: “Having someone who knows the different nuances and different ins and outs of different types of techniques that you have to know to play O-line in the Air Raid system, I think that’s been really helpful with us. In terms of IDing things and being able to play faster within the system and to not think as much and play with tempo like the Air Raid system is supposed to be, I think that’s helped out a lot.”
After a 2020 season that didn’t bring the next-level growth many hoped to see offensively, USC has gone all-in on Harrell’s offense, giving him that added trust and familiarity in the O-line position with McGuire and filling the vacant TEs job with his close confidant Seth Doege.
Add in running backs coach Mike Jinks, who also comes from the Texas Tech coaching tree and that’s a wealth of Air Raid experience (even if Harrell will be the first to note that this isn’t intended to be Mike Leach’s Air Raid.)
But everything hinges on what happens up front with the offensive line — whether it can help improve what was one of the worst rushing attacks nationally in 2020, and whether it can give quarterback Kedon Slovis enough time to truly maximize the continued wealth of offensive playmakers around him.
“This is one of the best groups of kids I’ve ever been around. They come in and they work hard. They’re very coachable. They buy in to what you say, and for the most part, we’ve been able to talk about things in the meeting room, then go out there and fix it when we do have problems and mistakes. Very excited about the opportunity to coach these guys and what their potential level is,” McGuire said. “Because I think if we can reach that, we have a chance to be really good.”
The offensive linemen had a couple of other interesting comments Tuesday morning.
McKenzie praised the tone-setting energy the defensive line (and the defense in general) is bringing to practice and how that is having an impact on the offensive as well.
“Our whole defense has been playing with an incredible motor that us as an offense we have to be able to bring that same energy or bring that same enthusiasm every day at practice, so it’s keeping the competitive juices flowing all the way through practice and all the way through every drill,” he said. “I think that being able to have a D-line as talented as we do just helps us every day we go out to practice. They’re giving us new looks, they’re giving us moves that sometimes it’s only our guys can do. So there’s definitely a benefit there going at it with our own guys and going at it with the stellar guys we have.”
Both McKenzie and Neilon were asked if there is one defensive player who has been consistently the toughest to handle.
“I think one guy who sticks out that brings it every day is Tuli [Tuipulotu]. His motor is incredible, awesome player,” Neilon said. “I think he’s going to be really good this season and have a big season for us. He’s a great person off the field and he works extremely hard. He just plays with relentless effort and is a very good player. I think he’s going to have a great season. He continues to be a hard one to block. You have to bring it every time he lines up against you.”
Said McKenzie: “I think for me blocking edge rushers is kind of obvious, but Drake Jackson on our team, he’s a stellar pass rusher and every time we go against each other we always tell each other we’re taking next-level reps. So I think that kind of competition is what brings greatness at USC. When you go back and watch the old film of guys like Tyron Smith doing one-on-ones against Everson Griffen you think about how valuable those reps are and that intrasquad competition.”