Alijah Vera-Tucker says he's ignoring mock drafts as he prepares for NFL
While it's anybody's guess where USC offensive lineman Alijah Vera-Tucker will be selected, it seems a consensus that he will be the first Trojan taken in the NFL draft next month.
ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. projects Vera-Tucker as the No. 20 overall pick to the Chicago Bears, while colleague Todd McShay has the Trojans prospect going No. 18 to the Miami Dolphins, and the NFL Network's band of analysts slot Vera-Tucker anywhere from 10th or 11th to 21st or 24th.
Again, it's largely guesswork at this point.
"I'm not the type of guy to look at those mock drafts or anything. If I end up do looking at them, it's from my family sending me something. But for me, it's not too hard to ignore," Vera-Tucker said Monday in a Zoom interview with reporters ahead of USC's pro day Wednesday morning. "I'm the type of guy to put my head down, just pray on it and work and wherever I end up I'll be blessed."
If Vera-Tucker is taken in the first round, it would give the Trojans back-to-back first-round offensive linemen after left tackle Austin Jackson went 18th overall to the Miami Dolphins last year.
Vera-Tucker then slid over from left guard to fill that void at left tackle while showcasing his versatility and surely helping his draft stock.
He may not be fixated on it, but he was asked what it would mean to him if he does get that first-round call.
"Yeah, that would be just a blessing in itself," he said. "Growing up being able to watch the NFL guys and watch the combine every year ... being able to be a first-round draft pick would definitely be a blessing, but for me that's not the final destination. For me, it's trying to get to a team, winning a Super Bowl, becoming an All-Pro whatever position I'm at."
That's the question -- will Vera-Tucker be a guard or tackle at the next level? He says he doesn't care.
"I think teams are looking at me as a tackle and guard. I feel like I'm a very versatile player and I think I've proven that throughout my time here at USC, so I think teams are going to look at me as tackle and guard," he said.
PFF graded Vera-Tucker at an elite level each of the last two years. At left guard in 2019, he finished with just 7 total pressures allowed (1 sack) over 590 pass-protection snaps for an 87.9 pass-blocking grade. At left tackle in 2020, in the Trojans' limited six-game season, he allowed 8 pressures (4 sacks) over 305 pass-protection snaps for an 84.2 isolated pass-blocking grade, but 6 of those pressures and half of those sacks came in the Pac-12 championship game vs. Oregon as he played through a hamstring injury.
"That game was a fun game to play in. Even though I was kind of injured and didn't practice all week, at the end of the day I just wanted to play in that game. Obviously it's the Pac-12 championship, so I told coach there's no way I wasn't playing in that," Vera-Tucker said. "I just came out of that game proud of myself that I played in it injured and I was just happy I was able to play it. I've always been a competitor, so I just feel I proved it even more."
Initially, Vera-Tucker wasn't going to play at all this season. He had opted out when the Pac-12 season looked in flux, but he was enticed back before the start of preseason camp while answering the Trojans' biggest question at left tackle.
Vera-Tucker feels it was a benefit to him as well, meanwhile.
"I think it raised my stock a lot and I was blessed to play out at left tackle, especially since I hadn't played out there for about four years before. So it was real good playing out there," he said. "It was a little weird at first, but then towards the end of the season I started to feel a lot more comfortable out there."
USC coach Clay Helton echoed those sentiments.
"I really thought it was a very wise decision to play this last season, these six games. He was always in that first round, maybe high second round category prior to the season, and really felt that if he had one more year of tape -- because he had one year of starter tape -- and he could really show his athletic ability that we knew he had [it would pay off for him]," Helton said. "To be able to show teams that, hey, I'm as athletic as there can be at tackle and I can be a premier interior player also, to have those two spots [on] tape, we just felt was a tremendous value. And so did his family and so did Alijah. So proud for him.
"A lot of the early mock drafts that you see have him as one of the top 20 picks. His work ethic, his athleticism, his just blue collar wiring to show up everyday to work and get better, it's evident why teams like him and there's so much interest. He's really improved each and every year, and I thought this past season was a great example of what he can be at the next level."
Vera-Tucker has been training at EXOS in Phoenix, Ariz., along with USC defensive tackle Marlon Tuipulotu.
He added that he's also talked to Jackson, his former partner on the left side of the Trojans offensive line, and others in the NFL about what to expect in making the transition and he's confident it will be a smooth one for him.
Meanwhile, he was asked what separates him from other offensive line prospects in this class.
"One thing is I'm very physical on the field. Whether it's at guard or left tackle, I feel like you see that a lot when you turn on my tape -- definitely try to finish guys every single play," he said. "And then also I feel like my IQ is very high in this game as well, able to just recognize ... just little things in the game that are important for anybody to understand. And also, I feel like I'm a very good technician too -- I take that very seriously in my game. So just kind of all those things combined, I feel like separate me from the other offensive linemen in this class."