USC’s 2021 fall camp kicks off with the first full practice on Friday afternoon and we’ll be previewing camp this week with a position-by-position look at the biggest storyline, notable new and returning names and what to expect during the 14 fall camp and 25 total practices before USC starts its season against San Jose State in the Coliseum on Sept. 4.
The offensive line
This is the position group that likely holds USC's 2021 fate in its hands and it's likely that no group will get more out of fall camp than the offensive line. It's the only position that saw a coaching change over the offseason, with Clay McGuire coming in from Texas State, in large part due to his familiarity with this Air Raid offense and working history with offensive coordinator Graham Harrell. With eight returning starters on offense and a quarterback who has the talent to be in the discussion for national postseason awards, there is no in-season transition time available for McGuire. This group will need to click quickly with San Jose State and Stanford right out of the gate and the memory of Kedon Slovis being helped off the field as the final image of the 2020 season.
As far as personnel, it's tough to get better when you lose a first-round NFL draft pick and don't bring in anybody who is expected to make an immediate impact. But there is some confidence that this group can take a step forward this season, even though the exact makeup of the starting five is still to be determined.
McGuire is seen as a very impactful addition due to his ability to teach both the physical and mental aspects of this offense. Linemen have talked about how much better the communication was this spring. Leading the way for a strong running game is one of the keys for McGuire as an offensive line coach and we saw him this past spring take an aggressive approach to jumping in and fixing things immediately after plays. That confidence in what he's teaching is something that shouldn't be taken lightly in terms of perhaps expecting an uptick in play from the line this season.
But it'll be up to the players to execute and fall camp will go a long way towards telling just how ready that group is to lead the way for the USC offense. Who takes first snaps at left tackle will likely be the most asked question following the first practice, but it would be surprising to not see Courtland Ford there. It's where he started the spring and he was good enough there -- and now has a full offseason under his belt -- to think he'll be back to start the fall.
Andrew Vorhees returns at left guard, Brett Neilon at center and Liam Jimmons at right guard. That's a veteran trio in the middle of the line, but fall camp might offer an opportunity for some others to push them for starting spots. Justin Dedich started at center twice in 2019 and once again in 2020 as an injury replacement for Neilon and he's also an option at guard. Redshirt freshman Andrew Milek has made the move to center and looks to have a bright future there. He was impressive in the spring until an injury sidelined him for the final practices.
Jalen McKenzie started all six games at right tackle and played a majority of the spring there as well, but that spot might be worth watching during camp, and McKenzie has already shown the ability to slide inside and play guard if the need arises.
In fact, every spot is probably worth watching and that might be a good news/bad news situation for the Trojans. On one hand, none of the returners are surefire stars and future NFL first-round picks the way Alijah Vera-Tucker was when he could be slid out to left tackle and left alone there to produce all season. On the other hand, there appears to finally be the depth behind the starters to really push them and create an interesting fall camp full of competition.
The USC coaches chose to run with the presumed starters during the first half of spring ball before really mixing things up over the final practices. That allowed Vorhees to play well at tackle, Milek to make an impression at center, Dedich to perform as a starter and redshirt freshman Jonah Monheim to really take a step forward at right tackle.
Monheim is definitely a guy to watch as a potential starter as the Trojans move through fall camp. The USC offensive coaches have said they want to find the five best linemen and then fit them into the correct spots. It might be as easy as the four returning starters heading out there with Ford replacing Vera-Tucker at left tackle. Or there could be some real changes as McGuire finds the guys he wants to work with as starters.
Fall camp will also be an important time for guys such as Liam Douglass, Jason Rodriguez, Casey Collier and Gino Quinones to prove they can be valuable members of the two-deep. Class of 2020 signees Caadyn Stephens and Andres Dewerk were viewed as more developmental prospects than the others in their class, so those guys continuing to progress will be another important part of increasing the overall talent level in the room.
It'll also be the first opportunity to see true freshmen Mason Murphy, Ty Buchanan and Maximus Gibbs on the practice field. Murphy is an interesting player and probably someone who didn't get enough recruiting attention as a prospect. It's tough to imagine any of the three freshmen making enough noise during camp to push into the depth chart in a meaningful way, but it'll be good to get a sense of where they stand against all the other young players from the 2020 class.
Frank Martin returns as a backup at tackle and guard after opting out of the 2020 season and the Trojans also have a handful of walk-ons available to provide depth on the practice field, including Joe Bryson, Damian Lopez, A.J. Mageo and Mark Zuvich.
There are 22 offensive linemen listed on the roster, including 18 scholarship players. Numbers aren't an issue along the line anymore. Now it's about finding the right combination and instilling the right mindset and physical skills to turn this into a position of strength for the Trojans. The real answers won't come until the season officially kicks off, but fall camp should give a fairly good idea of just how ready this group will be to take on its 2021 schedule.