When Gino Quinones first arrived on the USC campus, he was honest with himself. He knew it would be a while before he got his chance. Not only was he adjusting to college, but he had just transitioned from defense to offense. There was a lot to learn.
“Did I know it would take some time? Of course,” the red shirt senior remembers.
It took almost four years to finally make it – and another year for a full-time job to present himself as a left-back.
For Emmanuel Pregnon, it was even more difficult to find an opportunity at first. A Denver native, he didn’t get into football until he was middle of high school, so he didn’t draw much attention when it came to recruiting. Only one school offered him a full scholarship: Wyoming. Everyone else, he says, saw him – a future 315-pounder – as too small.
So Pregnon went to Laramie, where it took him three years to crack the Cowboys rotation at the top. But when he did, opportunities abounded, including an open guard spot with USC.
The two embattled linemen on the left had both taken vastly different paths to reach a similar point at USC. Quinones has been with the school since 2019, a reliable reserve with two starts last season. Pregnon only came out of the transfer portal last summer, a largely unknown but coveted size.
Their competition is emblematic of a new standard in the age of the transfer portal, where skilled reinforcements are often just a phone call away. At USC, more than half of its planned offensive line this season has been removed from the portal in the past eight months.
That includes Pregnon, who has emerged as a likely starter on the left. Quinones, who started camp rotating with starters, recently served as USC’s second-team center and likely paved the way for Pregnon to secure the last open seat on the line.
Being carefully handpicked through the portal and receiving offers from LSU, Penn State, Oregon and UCLA, among others, Pregnon opened camp as the putative favorite for the position. So far he has done nothing to jeopardize this status.
“Emmanuel, you don’t have to look at him for long to realize that maybe he can be someone who can get people off the ball,” said offense coach Josh Henson. “He showed that a lot in the film. He has to become more consistent and as a player he certainly has a lot of room to develop. But you’ve seen some glimpses of the top-end potential that maybe one day he can truly be among the elite.”
Those early glimpses came mostly in the ground game, as Pregnon gives USC a gargantuan presence in central defense that it didn’t have a year ago.
“I like throwing people in the dirt,” Pregnon said.
The questions about Pregnon always came from elsewhere.
“People have always told me that it’s not the physical side that I’m lacking,” Pregnon said. “It was the mental side. That was the biggest thing for me, building that mental side.”
For Quinones, the challenge was not so different. He’s spent the last four years learning the intricacies of the position and honing his technique. But while Pregnon is eligible to play for three more seasons after his move, Quinones is a fifth-grader. His patience may not be rewarded in the end.
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 reaction. My dad used to tell me that since I was little,” Quinones said. “Competitions really bring out the best in you. I learned that pretty quickly.”