After five years together, Justin Dedich hadn’t given much consideration to the fact that one day two staples of USC’s offensive line would be gone. After all the games playing alongside Brett Neilon and Andrew Vorhees, all the practices and meetings and random outings spent together, it always felt as if he’d have one more.
But Neilon, the Trojans longtime center, was carted off the field with an injury in the Pac-12 title game, and Vorhees, having battled nagging injuries all season, bowed out of the bowl to prepare for the NFL draft. Suddenly, there was no last hurrah and Dedich was playing center ahead of the Cotton Bowl, and Jonah Monheim had kicked inside to guard. An era had ended without warning.
“This is it,” Dedich said with a sigh. “It’s a harsh reality you gotta face. I’m glad we have a new group, and we’re playing well together, but those are my brothers. It makes me sad. It does.”
How harsh that reality winds up for USC depends in large part on Dedich, who’s likely to return for a sixth season as the anchor and leader of the Trojans’ offensive line. He and Monheim would be the only returning full-time starters on the line next year, making major change inevitable.
Those changes have been underway for weeks now. “It’s a brand new shuffle,” Dedich said.
With Dedich moving to center and Monheim to right guard, it’s still unclear how the other pieces will fit for USC. Gino Quinones started a game at guard earlier this season and was expected to slot in at left guard against Tulane, and redshirt freshman Mason Murphy will play one of the tackle spots.
Redshirt senior Bobby Haskins has been the Trojans’ starting left tackle for most of the season, after beating out Courtland Ford for the job. But on Friday, offensive line coach Josh Henson hinted that “you’ll see a lot of [Ford] in the Cotton Bowl.”
More changes could be on the horizon. Transfer offensive tackle Michael Tarquin, who started eight games for Florida this season, committed to USC on Friday afternoon, giving the Trojans a much-needed bookend to Murphy at tackle. Five more freshmen offensive linemen will arrive from the incoming recruiting class, including talented four-star tackle Elijah Paige.
“There will be new faces coming in in the spring, and we’ll see how they fit in,” Henson said. “But it’s a head start for those out on the field practicing right now.”
USC should have no shortage of options to reorganize up front by spring. But it won’t be easy to replace what Vorhees and Neilon have meant to a unit that went through its share of ups and downs.
There was no replacing Neilon’s calm amid the chaos, Dedich and Monheim said. Nor could anyone keep them in check quite like Vorhees, whose many superstitions had become a part of the USC line’s identity.
Once, Dedich made the mistake of grabbing the wrong pregame energy drink for Vorhees.
“I usually grab him, like, Rainbow Unicorn, but I grabbed him, like, Strawberry Blast, and he lost it on me,” Dedich said with a laugh. “He was like, ‘Dude, if we lose this game, it’s because of this.’ ”
Dedich was feeling particularly wistful for those quirks Friday. But as he looked across the locker room at Monheim, he filled with a sense of hope for the future.
“That kid over there, Jonah is really stepping up,” he said.
Reminded he’s now technically the elder statesman of USC’s offensive line, Dedich shrugged. He still can’t quite see it that way. Not yet, at least.
“I guess I might be taking on that role, but I don’t know,” he said. “You just want the success of the room to be that great. Sometimes you’re the leader and you don’t really know it. You’re just playing ball.”