USC’s Got a Big Blind Side Problem

Ryan Kartje (LA Times)  —  Even before Austin Jackson declared early for the NFL draft, leaving a gaping hole on the left side of his offensive line, Clay Helton knew USC would soon be in desperate need of reinforcements upfront.

Depth along the line had dwindled in recent years. So his staff spent the last recruiting cycle replenishing as best they could. The Trojans signed six offensive linemen to national letters of intent in December, and on an otherwise disappointing Signing Day, Helton repeatedly praised the hefty class he’d inherited.

“It was a big man’s day,” he said, with a smile.

But for all the depth added with that December haul, Jackson’s largely expected departure still leaves the Trojans in an unenviable position. After a season in which the front took a huge step forward, USC will be tasked with replacing both of its towering bookends along the offensive line.

For an offense that could be among the nation’s best next season, that’s no small problem.

As the deadline for early draft declarations arrives on Monday, the Trojans aren’t planning on losing any other underclassmen outside of Jackson. Wideout Tyler Vaughns, defensive tackle Jay Tufele, and right guard Alijah Vera-Tucker (left) all announced in recent days that they’d be returning for another season.

That’s the good news.

With Vera-Tucker back, the rest of the Trojans’ improving line should remain mostly intact. The rising redshirt junior is expected to return to his left guard spot, while Brett Neilon again takes the helm at center. Both Andrew Voorhees, who started at guard in 2016 and 2017, and Justin Dedich, who filled in for Neilon at center last season, could contend for the other guard spot vacated by Jalen McKenzie, who is expected to kick out to right tackle, replacing departing senior Drew Richmond.

But at left tackle, where Jackson started 25 straight games over two seasons, there are no obvious answers.

Frank Martin II, a former four-star recruit from Santa Ana Mater Dei, worked as the second-team right tackle ahead of the bowl game. But over his first three years at USC, Martin never saw the field. Last season, he played in just three games.

In spite of that inexperience, Martin will likely open spring practice as the first-team left tackle.

How long he’ll hold on to the spot remains to be seen. Jason Rodriguez, a former four-star tackle recruit out of Oak Hills, should make a serious push for the position after redshirting last season. Liam Jimmons could also be an option, following an impressive switch from defensive to offensive line last season. He finished the year as USC’s starting right guard, with McKenzie shifting to right tackle for the bowl game.

The Trojans have no shortage of options at left tackle, even before considering the six freshmen set to join in the fall or possible transfers currently waiting in the portal. But whether any of those options are capable of replacing perhaps the Trojans’ most irreplaceable offensive player is another question entirely.

The 6-foot-6, 310-pound tackle wasn’t just the most talented player on USC’s offensive line. He was a steadying force on a front that was anything but steady before last season.

In 2019, Jackson was the first Trojan lineman named to the All-Pac-12 first team since Zach Banner in 2016, in spite of missing all of USC’s summer workouts to donate bone marrow to his younger sister. He’ll more than likely be a first-round pick come April, too, solidifying him as the first USC lineman since Matt Kalil in 2012 to be drafted in the top two rounds.

Without him, the prospect of breaking in two new offensive tackles against Alabama and its vaunted defensive front next fall is undoubtedly daunting. But considering what other contenders have lost this offseason, the circumstances could certainly be worse.

After a stellar season in which he was named Pac-12 offensive freshman of the year, quarterback Kedon Slovis should take a step forward. The backfield remains entirely intact, and the return of Vaughns at wideout leaves USC with arguably the deepest and most talented receiving corps in the nation. Defensively, only linebacker John Houston and defensive end Christian Rector, must be replaced.

The Trojans should have an answer for most of those departures. But with Jackson leaving early for the NFL and their offensive line set for another offseason of uncertainty, questions at left tackle won’t be leaving USC any time soon.

latimes.com

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TrojanDailyBlog members  —  Always feel free to add information or topics to the TDB which don’t necessarily pertain to any particular moderator post or member comment.

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TrojanMPA90
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Wonder how recruiting is going since the 2nd National Letter of Intent day is coming soon. Anybody heard anything?

Any news on when Clay will announce the DC hire or who is going to be the ST coach?

Jamaica
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Maybe after the 3rd or 4th game of next season. Helton holds a press conference: Todd Orlando & I have decided it is in the best interest of our warrior program that he leaves our program due to a philosophical difference in the way our team operation. I wish Todd the best in his future. Due to this void, I have decided to give coach Harrell the responsibility to coordinate offense & defense in both the practice sessions and games. I will continue to assist him with watching & correcting any errors in execution. Fight On

RialtoTrojan
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Has this become a biweekly blog?

ATL D.D.S.
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Hey, once football season is over and the reality settles in that Huggs is our coach again for another season, there isn’t much until our next scheduled flop which is the two and three star festival (for USC at least) known as National Letter of Intent day in February.

Basketball? Wake me up at conference tournament time. Nothing matters in the college game until then.

So, Rialto, what I am saying is to give Allen and John a break. They don’t get paid by the click the negative wolfie did…. smile

Fight ON (despite having Foltie on the scene).

Scipio
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In the old Soviet Union each military detachment had a political officer who could over rule the commanding military officer if he went against party lines. It didn’t matter if the political officer’s decision went against the military’s objective. In Brenda Tracy, it looks like the athletic department got its first SJW political officer planted directly in the department. Napoleon Folt keeps pulling in her warriors (not to be confused with CCH’s warriors)

TrojanMPA90
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I’m okay with Todd Orlando being hired as the DC. Will be interesting to see how he and Harrell’s offense co-exist when the season starts. At least Orlando will recruit which is something Clancy refused to do.

Hope Helton gets a good ST coach soon.

UtahTrojan
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Did Texas fire their Special Teams coach? If so, I suspect that will be Heltons next press conference.

Jamaica
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Let’s see, who got fired recently in the DC position? (This is Clay Helton’s way of filling vacancies on his staff.) It works for him like it did finding the his O-line coach, special team’s coach, the last DC, etc. Just goes to show you who will work for the “warrior coach”.

alfa1
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Per ‘The Scoop’…Feldman is touting Todd Orlando as our next DC
Pulling him out of Texas Tech where he just signed on.

Carter
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This is the story of the day. Get on it guys.

Steveg
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Eagles are continuing to interview for OC. Maybe GH didn’t impress that much or he didn’t accept the no play calling deal.

RialtoTrojan
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I don’t know if I’m supposed to be happy or feel sorry for the guy.

Steveg
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My exact feeling also. Do we root to win or root to lose Helton (A win also).

Steveg
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The immediate future at USC football sure looks dismal. How many QB’s will we have able to play by the end of the Alabama game? So much talent unprotected and nothing CH can or knows what to do about it.

Jamaica
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I can see Helton telling Harrell to constantly have the QB handoff the football to the RB and just fall to the ground as often as possible so he will be healthy in winning the New Mexico game. We will also see how successful this new DC Orlando is in having full contact practices in preparing for Bama. Good luck on that one coach!

trojandn
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USC needs to be sure that the blind side is protected as it has a blooming star at QB. Not sure if it is the offense or the fact that teams were trying to knock Slovis out of games last season as IMHO, he took a lot of late and some illegal hits that were not called.

Jamaica
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3-star left tackles will allow that to happen…. our man Helton can’t do any better than that. In fact, he’s lucky he can still attract 3-stars to come play for him.

ATL D.D.S.
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Can we petition the NCAA to allow us to play 13-men on offense in the ALA game as a humanitarian gesture? At least we could then put 8 or 9 of our two and three star O-lineman against ALA’s four and five star front seven!