LOS ANGELES — The night before USC played UCLA, sixth-year senior offensive linemen Brett Neilon and Andrew Vorhees lay on their backs in their hotel beds, staring at their phones, making idle conversation. It was around 11 o’clock, blackout curtains drawn, television off after the pair watched a nature documentary on Netflix.
Eventually, the longtime teammates put down their phones. And for the next two hours, staring up at a dark ceiling, the two reminisced about memories the pair had shared through their six years at USC. The good, the bad, the insane, laughing until the early hours of the morning.
“It really was special,” Vorhees said. “It really was something I won’t forget.”
Neilon and Vorhees arrived at USC in 2017. And when they take the field at the Coliseum for the final time Saturday against Notre Dame, it will close out a special era for the USC offensive line.
The Trojans’ 2017 offensive line signing class was a special unit. Austin Jackson and Alijah Vera-Tucker went on to be first-round NFL draft picks. Jalen McKenzie is on the Seahawks’ practice squad. Vorhees and Neilon are both expected to get their own professional opportunities next year.
But when Vorhees first met Neilon, they were high school juniors competing at Stanford’s summer camp. When they both received invitations to another padded camp in Palo Alto the next summer, they understood they were both going for the same scholarship offer.
But Neilon committed to USC in May of 2016 and was quickly asked by then-head coach Clay Helton to help recruit linemen. And the next month, Vorhees took an unofficial visit to USC. It was enough for Vorhees to cancel his plans to camp at Stanford, his long-time dream school, and commit to the Trojans.
“It’s kind of hard to explain but I knew it was the choice for me,” Vorhees said. “There was just something about this place that attracted me here.”
Vorhees enrolled early in January of 2017, but Neilon hung around, attending spring practices while finishing his senior year at Santa Margarita Catholic. By the summer, they were all on campus, Neilon rooming with Jackson and Vera-Tucker.
But all five of those 2017 linemen hung out off the field. They watched sports together, played video games, shared meals. Vorhees was often tasked as the “foodie” in the group with picking restaurants. But he had to be practical, going for quantity over quality for his big-stomached friends. All-you-can-eat sushi and Korean barbecue became staples.
Neilon also started a tradition they called “food tours”, going to several restaurants in a night. One such tour in 2021 included four or five restaurants and ended at Westfield Century City with the group going into a theater not to see a movie but just to buy tubs of popcorn to cap the day.
“We bonded as people first, not even about football. That always makes it more special,” Neilon said. “Those are lifelong friends.”
Of course, by nature of playing the same position, the five were competing for starting time early in their careers. But instead of setting individual goals, they set one for all five of the 2017 linemen to start a game together.
They got close in 2019, with Neilon, McKenzie, Jackson and Vera-Tucker starting together once.
“Yeah, there was some competition but it wasn’t ever like spite,” Neilon said. “We all rooted for each other.”
That first year together in 2017, USC won a Pac-12 championship and went to the Cotton Bowl. It was tempting to believe that’s how their entire time as Trojans would go. But fate had other plans. The group went through two losing seasons and four position coaches. Jackson left for the NFL after 2019, and Vera-Tucker a year later.
Then in 2021, Helton was fired. The team went through a devastating 4-8 season before hiring Lincoln Riley as its new head coach.
It left the remaining linemen from the 2017 class with a choice: Head to the NFL, or return for the first season under the new coach?
McKenzie opted to go pro, but Neilon decided quickly he wanted to be a part of Riley’s first season. So he found himself in the same position as five years earlier, recruiting Vorhees back to USC.
Neilon did not approach it as recruiting, however. He felt his job was simply to present to pros and cons of each option to Vorhees, who was widely seen as a first-round prospect. They two sat on patio chairs at the USC Village, working toward a decision.
“I knew it was going to be a special year and Brett kind of solidified that,” Vorhees said. “He’s like a general, really. You talk about just a leader and seeing his vision out there, it’s just incredible.”
And Vorhees couldn’t shake the thought that he did not want his USC career to end on such a sour note. So he opted to come back, a moment that Riley looks back on as a turning point for USC’s culture change this season.
“I’ll always look back and think of that,” Riley said. “I probably didn’t realize how big that was at the time but that was important. It was a tone-setter in a lot of ways.”
Added Neilon, “He was one of our best players last year, for him to come back and trust that process and be one of the early huge pieces, it’s huge.”
It’s worked out how Neilon and Vorhees hoped. The Trojans are 10-1, heading to the Pac-12 championship next week and with a chance at the College Football Playoff. Facts that did not escape them as they lay in their hotel room before the UCLA game.
“Did you ever think?” Neilon said they asked each other that night. “Just special moments like that, reflecting on our journey and just really live in this moment and appreciate it for what it is.”