“It was like a big Christmas present.”
Offensive line coach Tim Drevno isn’t describing a USC victory, or at least one that shows up in the record books. He’s referring to redshirt junior offensive lineman Alijah Vera-Tucker’s decision to opt back into the 2020 football season, bringing valuable experience to a line that lost two of last season’s starters.
“I slept better the night I heard he was coming back,” Drevno told Annenberg Media.
Vera-Tucker, who is a projected first-round pick on some NFL draft boards, opted out of a potential season Sept. 9 to train for the draft. When the Pac-12 announced its return to play plan Sept. 24, his first instinct wasn’t to join his teammates on the field, he said.
“It took a lot of thought and talking with my family, friends and coaches,” Vera-Tucker said in a press conference. “But then I thought, ‘Why not? Why not come back and compete with my brothers, compete for a Pac-12 Championship?’”
Drevno isn’t the only person excited to have Vera-Tucker back on the line. Sophomore quarterback Kedon Slovis reached out to the lineman when he was contemplating a return. Offensive coordinator Graham Harrell also stressed the importance of Vera-Tucker’s presence on the team in his first media availability of fall camp.
“One: He’s a great football player. Two: He’s played a lot of football,” Harrell said.
Vera-Tucker was away from the team for nearly a month but said it wasn’t hard to refocus his energy toward preparing for a season. He spent that time training for the NFL Combine and working on offensive line drills, so he “didn’t miss a step” in the transition to fall camp.
The Oakland, Calif. native is one of four returning offensive linemen from the 2017 recruiting class, along with Brett Neilon, Jalen McKenzie and Andrew Vorhees. USC has six new recruits on the line who might see significant playing time this year, so these seasoned returners are acting as mentors during fall camp.
Drevno said Vera-Tucker consistently pulls the freshmen aside at practice to deliver feedback. But perhaps more importantly, he leads by example.
“He’s the type of guy who’s not a repeat offender,” Drevno said. “That’s his DNA makeup … He never makes excuses about anything. He’s the first person to say, ‘Hey, what do I need to do to fix it?’”
Vera-Tucker was named USC’s Offensive Lineman of the Year last season, an impressive achievement given that he played alongside left tackle Austin Jackson, who was selected No. 18 overall by the Miami Dolphins in the 2020 NFL Draft. He also made the All-Pac-12 first team and All-American third team.
Given these accolades and the newfound attention he’s received after opting out and back in, it would be easy for Vera-Tucker to get caught up in the hype. But he’s the same Alijah as ever, Drevno said.
“He’s the same guy that I met in 2018,” he said. “He’s going to be that same guy when it’s time for him to leave and we’ve finished our business here by winning a championship.”
Championship aspirations are a big reason Vera-Tucker rejoined the team for this upcoming season — he thinks this year’s group has a strong chance to win the Pac-12 title.
“You should expect a lot from us,” he said. “We want that pressure. We want the fans and the press to expect a lot from us, and we’re ready to show what we can do.”
On an individual level, Vera-Tucker has the chance to improve his draft stock with an impressive showing this season. It hasn’t been his lifelong dream to play in the NFL — he first donned a football jersey as a high school freshman. For him, the college situation was "getting my degree first and if the NFL happens, it happens.
“I’m really blessed to be in this situation,” he said.