USC’s O-line a showcase for battles shaped by transfer portal

When Gino Quinones first arrived on campus at USC, he was honest with himself. He knew it would be a while before he got his shot. Not only did he have to adjust to college, but he’d just moved from defensive end to the offensive line. There was a lot to learn.

“Did I know it would take some time? Of course,” the redshirt senior recalls.

It took almost four years for it to finally click — and another one for a full-time opportunity to present itself at left guard.

For Emmanuel Pregnon, opportunity was even harder to come by, at first. The Denver native didn’t commit himself to football until midway through high school, so he didn’t attract much recruiting attention. Only one school offered him a full scholarship: Wyoming. Everyone else, he says, saw him — a future 315-pounder — as undersized.

So Pregnon shipped off for Laramie, where it took him three years to crack the Cowboys’ rotation up front. Once he did, though, the opportunities came pouring in, among them an open guard spot at USC.

The two linemen in contention at left guard had both taken radically different routes to reach a similar juncture at USC. Quinones has been at the school since 2019, a reliable reserve with two starts under his belt from last season. Pregnon just arrived this past summer out of the transfer portal, a mostly unknown, yet coveted quantity.

Their competition is emblematic of a new standard in the age of the transfer portal, where capable reinforcements are often just a phone call away. At USC, more than half of its projected offensive line this season was culled from the portal in the past eight months.

That includes Pregnon, who’s emerged as the likely starter at left guard. Quinones, who began camp rotating with starters, has recently been working as USC’s second-team center, presumably clearing the way for Pregnon to secure the last open spot on the line.

Being that he was hand-picked from the portal, with offers from LSU, Penn State, Oregon, and UCLA among several others, Pregnon opened camp as the presumptive favorite at the position. He’s done nothing to jeopardize that status so far.

“Emmanuel, it doesn’t take much to look at him to figure maybe he can be a guy that can move people off the ball,” offensive line coach Josh Henson said. “He demonstrated that on film a lot. He has to get more consistent, certainly has a lot of room to grow as a player. But you saw some glimpses of top-end potential that maybe he can be really elite someday.”

Those early glimpses have come primarily in the ground game, as Pregnon gives USC a gargantuan presence on the interior that it didn’t have a year ago.

“I like to put people in the dirt,” Pregnon said.

The questions with Pregnon have always come elsewhere.

“People have always told me it wasn’t the physical side I was missing,” Pregnon said. “It was the mental side. So that was the biggest thing for me, building that mental side.”

For Quinones, the challenge hasn’t been so different. He’s spent the past four years learning the finer points of the position and honing his technique. But while Pregnon still has three seasons of eligibility after transferring in, Quinones is a fifth-year senior. His patience may not ultimately be rewarded.

It’s a harsh reality of the transfer portal, but Quinones doesn’t spend much time worrying about it. He knows he’s come a long way in his four years.

“Approach determines response. My dad told me that since I was little,” Quinones said. “Competing really does bring out the best in you. I’ve learned that pretty quickly.”