Over his first five seasons as a fixture up front for USC, Andrew Vorhees grew accustomed to unlearning habits. Three offensive line coaches had already come and gone during his tenure, each promising to put his stamp on the Trojans’ maligned line, only to be sent packing soon after.
With each new assistant came new preferred methods or techniques. First, there was Neil Callaway, who was fired in the middle of the 2018 season, when Vorhees was a sophomore. Then there was Tim Drevno, who lasted until the end of 2020. After him came Clay McGuire, who did well in his one season but was swept up by the offseason staff overhaul.
A sixth season at USC meant another new offensive line coach, another new playbook, new techniques, new methods, new everything. And his fifth, Vorhees said, had left “a sour taste in my mouth.” So by the time Lincoln Riley arrived as head coach, Vorhees was leaning toward leaving.
He strongly considered departing for the NFL and had all the necessary conversations, but as soon as Riley took hold of the team, Vorhees could sense that change was afoot. The coach made it clear right away that he intended to “hold us accountable to a higher standard.”
“That’s something that hasn’t necessarily been the case in the past here,” Vorhees said Tuesday.
It was enough to make the third-team All-American offensive lineman reconsider.
“I was confident in what he was bringing to the line in terms of culture,” Vorhees said. “I really believed in him and what he was about, so that was really convincing and encouraging. And ultimately, I made the decision to stay.”
That decision still meant learning a new system under a new offensive line coach, Josh Henson, who was plucked by Riley from Texas A&M. And this new offense wasn’t rooted in the same principles of simplicity as USC’s iteration of the Air Raid the last two seasons.
“There’s definitely a little bit more on your plate,” center Brett Neilon said of the offense.
“I’ll just say I’m thankful we have spring ball to get the kinks out,” Vorhees added.
Riley and Henson seem particularly pleased with how quickly the line has adjusted this spring.
“The whole first unit, I see flashes of us operating at a really high level up to this point,” Henson said. “Do we have a lot of things that we can improve on? No question. But you see it headed in the right direction.”
That direction seems pretty decided for the time being. To start the spring, Neilon at center and Vorhees at left guard have been joined on the first-team line by Courtland Ford at left tackle and Jonah Monheim at right tackle, while Justin Dedich, long one of the Trojans’ top reserves, has slid in at right guard.
Transfer offensive tackle Bobby Haskins is expected to alter those plans at some point.
Haskins, who started 20 games at left tackle for Virginia, hasn’t practiced this spring while dealing with an undisclosed injury. Henson said Tuesday that Haskins might “get a little work” over the next month but is likely to cede most first-team reps this spring to Ford, who will have his shot to prove he can hold on to the job.
“If he would’ve been in the system, it wouldn’t have been as big of a deal,” Henson said of Haskins’ absence. “But Bobby is a very focused and intent guy. He might ask me more questions than anyone at practice.”
There are still plenty to be answered along the offensive line. Namely, how USC plans to persist with just 13 scholarship linemen, far fewer of whom are capable of stepping in right away.
“We need to develop depth,” Henson said. “I think that’s what our challenge is this spring, to develop depth behind that first group and to get some guys closer to the first group so they can go compete. The best lines I’ve been in, we’ve had eight or nine guys that could play.”
At least one more lineman could join the fold in the next month, as five-star offensive tackle Josh Conerly Jr. is set to make his decision April 8. He could immediately challenge for a starting spot in the fall.
Either way, as Henson puts his own stamp on the Trojans’ offensive line, he at least can lean on experience early. Vorhees has started 37 games. Neilon has started 29. Dedich has played parts of 22 games over five seasons, while Ford and Monheim are entering their third seasons at USC.
All five know all too well by this point what it’s like to start over again.
“Experience is a tough thing to beat up there,” Riley said. “We’ve got a couple of guys that are really good players that I think have picked up our stuff very fast that are good leaders. And I think more than anything, those guys are motivated to play some of the best ball of their career.”