While comparisons between the two will be immediate by USC fans, Neilon and Tuerk were different players at this point in their high school careers. Tuerk, a former five-star, was rated as an offensive tackle.
Neilon plays offensive right tackle, left tackle and guard for Santa Margarita, but is rated the No. 4 center in the country. He is also projected to play that position at in college. At 6-foot-2, 275-pounds, Neilon is a smaller, more compact offensive lineman than Tuerk, but is a more obvious fit at center because of his disposition.
While Neilon had a solid showing at The Opening Regional in Redondo Beach (Calif) in February, he is not a stationary player whose game is defined by pass protection drills. Neilon is a mauling run blocker who bounces from the first level on the defense to the second like thunder rumbling through a box canyon.
In many ways, Neilon’s disposition toward run blocking is emblematic of what USC head coach Clay Helton wants out of his offensive line. Helton has preached physicality since being hired and Neilon is a specialist in that respect.
Sanctions took their toll on USC in recent years, but offensive line recruiting has remained strong. USC is currently four deep at center. Junior Toa Lobendahn is the projected starter, with junior Khaliel Rodgers and junior Nico Falah also returners with starter experience. Top heavy with upperclassmen, USC also has redshirt freshman Cole Smith returning as a center and long snapper.
Traditionally, USC has produced a lineage of star players at the position. In the modern era of college football, the Trojans have had many All-Conference and All-American selections like Ryan Kalil, Jeff Beyers, Kris O’Dowd and most recently, Max Tuerk.
With USC maintaining a run-first mentality on offense, Neilon will have a year to learn the playbook before being thrust into competition for the starting center spot. At that point, he will be playing in an offense similar to what Santa Margarita was run the past two seasons — albeit at a new position.
Expert Opinion with Scout Director of Recruiting Brandon Huffman
Scout Director of Recruiting Brandon Huffman has watched Neilon play several times in person and breaks down his attributes as a center prospect.
“He’s really a better run blocker than he is pass blocker,” said Huffman. “I also think in the Pac-12, against quicker defensive ends, he is better suited to play inside.
“His strength is in run blocking and his body is better suited to play inside. Neilon doesn’t have the reach or length that you would find in an offensive tackle at the next level.
“In a pinch, he might be able to play right tackle, and the fact that he has played a number of positions on the offensive line adds to his value. He’s a smart kid with a high football IQ, and because he has played those different positions, that’s going to allow him to process the offensive line calls that much quicker.
“Really, it’s not common for high school centers to become college centers. Usually centers play guard in high school and then move inside. Neilon has that quickness to play guard, but his football IQ says center.
“Like with Toa Lobendahn, who was the son of a coach, it’s not only about grasping what the offensive scheme is, but also what the defense is doing and how the line will adjust. Brett has an advantage because he will come in prepared on the mental side of things, which is usually the most difficult part of making that jump from high school to college.”
While USC fans may immediately compare Neilon with Tuerk, Huffman sees as many differences as similarities between the two.
“The pros are that both played at Santa Margarita and there’s an emphasis on line play with that program,” said Huffman. “Both Tuerk and Neilon are really good run blockers too.
“But Tuerk was a really good offensive tackle in high school. I think he showed at USC that he could legitimately play offensive tackle at a high level. Max was also two or three inches taller than Brett. That gave him more upside at the high school level because of his length.”
Two of USC’s last three offensive line classes have been ranked among the nation’s best. However, versatilely is partly what has makes USC’s current roster so deep with offensive talent.
Lobendahn played left tackle his entire senior season at La Harbra, while Tuerk played both left and right tackle. At USC, both players played all three line positions.
Neilon becomes the first offensive line commit fro USC in the 2017 class, but this could be another highly touted group of four or five commits come February.
“You get Neilon as the No. 1 center prospect out West, you get Wyatt Davis as the No. 1 guard prospect in the West, Austin Jackson who is the No. 2 tackle in the West and a five-star and Alijah Vera-Tucker who is the top offensive lineman in the Bay Area.
“So you’re talking about the top player in Arizona, the top lineman in California, the top center in California and the top offensive lineman in Northern California. That’s just taking care of the home base. USC has a shot at Chuck Filiaga and probably will be in on a couple of out top linemen outside the region too.
“They have a good chance at keeping pipelines going at Santa Margarita and St. John Bosco, which is huge. Austin Jackson is a legacy for USC, which is also big. So USC would be accomplishing three things.
“They would be establishing that they can keep the good players in-state, you’re strengthening pipelines to good football programs and you’re getting a great offensive line class across the board. They could sign a class with two guards, two offensive tackles and a true center.”
While neither player is often mentioned as being seriously interested in USC, Huffman thinks the Trojans have a legitimate chance at landing one of the two.
“With Foster Sarell, USC is is probably running fourth or fifth in his recruitment behind Washington, Stanford, Notre Dame etc.” said Huffman. “With Bainivalu, USC was one of the only schools he visited unofficially this spring.
“Early on I would have said there was no way he was leaving Washington, but now I’d be surprised if he stays home. It sounds like he wants to get out of the area and try something new.
“He didn’t play with Max Browne at Skyline, but he does look up to him. I think if Browne wins the starting job at USC, that could really strengthen Bainivalu’s interest. That's another guy who plays tackle, but probably projects better as a guard.”