Antonio Morales (The Athletic) — LOS ANGELES — When Tim Drevno officially took over as USC’s offensive line coach late last year, his first priority was to give the group some direction.
He had to lay out what he wanted from them, how he wanted it done and he had to hold the players accountable to that. Drevno’s main priority spanning the second half of April through the entirety of May was different though. He spent that month and a half on the road recruiting and evaluating prospects who could potentially carry out said directives in the future.
The 50-year-old Drevno has held his current position at USC before, back in 2014, but as he’s in the midst of his second stint, the Trojans’ offensive line has become the most maligned position group on the team. The task of improving the offensive line, which in turn would significantly raise the ceiling of offensive coordinator Graham Harrell’s Air Raid system, has landed squarely on Drevno’s shoulders.
So what exactly was Drevno’s approach on the recruiting trail and what will it be as he builds the Trojans’ offensive line for the future?
There are certain on-field characteristics Drevno places a premium on when he’s evaluating a lineman. In a broad sense, he’s trying to gauge things like how well a prospect can move his feet. Is he physical enough? How does he come off the ball?
In terms of specifics: “If a guy’s got the ankle flexion,” Drevno said. “Can he set an anchor on a pass rush? Can he be able to cover up a block? Does he understand landmarks? Does he get his hat in the right place at landmarks? Can he play with enough strength? Those kinds of things. A lot of it in O-line play is flexibility and foot turnover speed. Be able to play lower than the guy in front of you. Be able to cover a guy up when he makes a move. Some guys are slow-footed and don’t have good enough flexibility. If you look at an elite athlete when you put on the tape, it’s four or five plays into the game and you’ll be like, ‘Man, that guy jumps off the screen. That guy’s got it.’”
When Drevno sits down with a lineman on an in-home or an official visit, he tends to utilize that time to examine the cerebral side of things. Is this player mature? Can he handle the load academically and mentally? What’s his football awareness like? Will they be able to avoid making the same mistakes over and over again?
“You don’t want a repeat offender,” Drevno said.
There are certain things he does to evaluate this. He’ll put up different fronts on a board, erases it, then he’ll have the prospect draw it over again. Or he’ll give a player a pass-protection or run-blocking assignment and have them teach it back to him.
“When he came over for the in-home visit, it was constant,” said four-star USC offensive line signee Jason Rodriguez. “We were always talking about football, past players and stuff like that. I just felt a good connection with him off the bat, just being that was the main focus.”
Rodriguez described Drevno’s recruiting style as “persistent” but not in a way that it eventually becomes overbearing.
“He knows what he’s doing,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez, a Hesperia, Calif., native who profiles as a tackle, was the highest-rated offensive lineman the Trojans landed in this recruiting cycle. At 6-foot-6 and 325 pounds, he’s the largest of the group as well.
But when asked what measurables he wants to see from his tackles and his interior linemen, Drevno rejected the concept.
“I don’t want to put a measurement on anything,” Drevno said. “Is he good enough? Is he big enough? I don’t say this guy’s got to be this height, this size or what have you.
“You can get too caught up in it (as an offensive line coach) and it could overtake you. You start to look for the size, the height and all the measurables but the bottom line is, is the guy good enough to play?”
The offensive line is a difficult position for coaches to evaluate. Arguably the most difficult. So much rides on technique, development, projection and the mental side of things.
“Usually they’re the biggest guy,” Drevno said, “but who are they going against? Well, he should knock that guy back. He’s 6-foot-5 and that guy’s 5-foot-11 across from him.
“The biggest thing is when you see their athletic movement. How they pull and how they pass set. They have knee bend and things on the film. I think you could see it pretty easy when you know what you’re looking for. When you’ve never played the position or coached the position, especially the offensive line, it’s hard to evaluate the guys because you’re not there every day dealing with those guys. You’re going through run blocking, you’re going through individuals, you’re going through pass pro.”
Drevno doesn’t mean to take away credit from skill players, he says, but it’s easier to tell if a quarterback can read coverages and make throws, if a running back can hit the hole, or if a receiver can catch and run than how a lineman will block once he gets to the college level.
“It’s a formed habit on the offensive line,” Drevno said. “Nobody wants to push a car down the middle of the street with a wide base. It’s a skillset. I think sometimes people have trouble identifying those guys because you’ve got to know what you’re looking for once you’re trying to identify.”
That’s partly why Drevno has to essentially disregard technique at the high school level. Being raw isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If a player is technically sound, that’s good. But Drevno will probably end up teaching them something else anyway.
So it goes back to looking at the film and figuring out if a player is smart enough, physical enough and athletic enough to fit in the system.
“Sometimes you can get a really, really good player that’s really, really well coached but he’s reached his ceiling,” Drevno said. “If you get a guy who’s really raw, his ceiling will probably be higher. Because he hasn’t been taught all those things. You really look for that explosion, that initial quickness and athletic ability. Technique is good but you’re looking at the guy that jumps off the screen and is good clay to be molded.”
Drevno spent the majority of this decade coaching the offensive line for Jim Harbaugh’s teams whether it was with Stanford, the San Francisco 49ers or Michigan. Those offenses — which were based off downhill running games — are much different than Harrell’s Air Raid which intentionally isn’t as complex as some of those systems.
And theoretically, it should allow Drevno more time to mold that clay.
“Being in the West Coast system and multiple pro offenses, there are a lot of layers to it and you’re always teaching them,” Drevno said. “It’s more protections, more run game. In this system, it’s Day 1, Day 2, Day 3 and you could become a really good technician.
“I notice myself teaching a lot more technique and the ins and outs of technique because technique will always win out for you against good players. … As a coach, I’ve been in situations where I felt I’ve had to have more ammo in my belt for my gun. These people go, ‘Here’s what we’re going into the game with, here’s how we’re going to do it.’ They believe in it and it works.”
And a lot of responsibility for the rate at which the system works at USC this season falls on the shoulders of its offensive line.