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USC coach Clay Helton has a lofty comparison for new Jets guard Alijah Vera-Tucker, whom Helton coached for the last three years.
“I think he’s in the mold of Quenton Nelson, having played him for years,” Helton told The Post.
That would be Nelson, the Colts guard who has been All-Pro in each of his first three seasons and has established himself as the best guard in football.
No pressure, Alijah.
Helton makes the comparison to Nelson, whom he faced in the USC-Notre Dame game every year, because he believes Vera-Tucker possesses some of the same traits.
“His versatility is what stands out to me first,” Helton said. “I think he’s going to be a special interior player at guard with elite athleticism and feet. He has that tackle athleticism that’s elite at guard, but if you get in a pinch in a game or a season, you could always move him back out to tackle.”
The Jets traded up in the first round from No. 23 to 14 to take Vera-Tucker, surrendering two third-round picks in the process. The trade has drawn some criticism from those who believe GM Joe Douglas gave up too much to move up to take a guard. If Vera-Tucker lives up to the billing that his college coaches give him, though, no one will remember the price the Jets paid.
Tim Drevno was Vera-Tucker’s offensive line coach at USC. He said the 6-foot-4, 308-pounder is unflappable.
“He just doesn’t panic,” Drevno, now an assistant at UCLA, said. “He stays in the moment, produces at a high level. If he makes a mistake, he’s not a repeat offender. He goes onto the next play and doesn’t let the last play affect him. That’s how he’s wired. He’s special. It’s not too big for him.”
Vera-Tucker started at left guard for the Trojans in 2019. When the team lost left tackle Austin Jackson to the NFL after that season, they looked to Vera-Tucker to move outside. They only had one spring practice because of COVID-19 and had to rush him to get ready for the season when they had an abbreviated training camp.
“He was the best offensive lineman on our team so we moved him out to left tackle,” Helton said. “Man, did he hold down the position. To the point where I thought, at times, he was as productive, if not more, than Austin in an abbreviated season.”
Drevno said there were two games Vera-Tucker played without practicing. The first came after he had to sit out the week of practice due to contact tracing before they played Washington State. The second came in the Pac-12 Championship against Oregon, when he had an injured hamstring. He played through it and faced Ducks edge-rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux, who projects as a top pick in 2022. He held Thibodeaux to one sack even with the hamstring injury.
“He just absolutely gave everything he got,” Helton said. “He didn’t care about where he was getting drafted. That’s just the guy he is.”
As much as he impressed his coaches on the field, they speak even more highly of his character off of it. Vera-Tucker initially opted out of last season when it appeared the Pac-12 would not play. When the Pac-12 relented and decided to conduct an abbreviated season, Vera-Tucker opted in to join his teammates for another run at a title.
“Some guys would say, ‘I’m out of here. I’m going on to pro football. I don’t care about this team’ and be selfish,” Drevno said. “That’s not who he is. It was really a special thing for him to do that. He made the team bigger than himself. That’s truly who he is.”
Helton said the Jets are getting a coach’s dream.
“He’s an unbelievable guy in the building. I’m talking about unbelievable,” Helton said. “That’s why he was a team captain. He’s the same dude every day. He’s consistent, blue collar, hard-working, great teammate. He’s a pro’s pro. He’s a guy you want in your building.”
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