Replacing Mark Sanchez as the Trojans’ starting quarterback might be difficult, but the transition to first-string signal-caller for either Aaron Corp or Matt Barkley will be made easier by a talented and veteran group of pass catchers.
Leading receiver Damian Williams returns to the gridiron this season alongside the No. 3 man from a year ago, junior Ronald Johnson, as does starting tight end senior Anthony McCoy.
Williams, a redshirt junior, played his first season for the Trojans last year after transferring from Arkansas. He made quite a first impression, catching 58 balls for 869 yards and nine touchdowns, and enters the season regarded as one of the best wideouts in the nation. Williams is also looking to fill some of the leadership role left by wide receiver Patrick Turner, a second-team All-Pac-10 selection in 2008 who now plays for the Miami Dolphins.
“He’s a leader. He shows [teammates] how to practice, how to do things,” offensive coordinator John Morton said of Williams. “That’s what leaders are supposed to do.”
Williams, who stands at 6-foot-1, is a solid route runner with good speed and great hands: a tough cover for most any corner.
Johnson, a big-play specialist with blazing speed, will step into the starting role opposite Williams. Now in his junior season, Johnson’s comfort level in the offense has grown immensely.
“I don’t have to think before I start my plays,” Johnson said. “It’s a lot easier because I just go and do it.”
“Ro-Jo,” as he is affectionately known by fans and teammates alike, caught 33 passes for 570 yards last season for an astonishing 17.3 yards per catch. He also scored eight touchdowns and is fifth all-time on the school’s kickoff return yardage list.
The Trojan offense is designed to feature only three receivers for a majority of the games, which makes the competition this fall for the third spot that much more intense.
The leading candidate seems to be redshirt junior David Ausberry, whose 6-foot-4 frame will provide a big target for the inexperienced quarterbacks. His 32 career catches represent the most out of the receivers vying for the third spot.
“I’m one of the older guys now so they’re going to be counting on me more,” Ausberry said. “[My goal] is just being more consistent.”
His comments seem to echo Morton’s, who described what he was looking for in a third receiver as “a guy that’s consistent and makes a lot of plays.”
Also in the competition is redshirt junior Travon Patterson. A former track star at Long Beach Poly High School, Patterson has speed to burn but only seven career college receptions to his credit.
Jordan Cameron, a redshirt junior whose path to USC has featured stops at BYU and Ventura Junior College, often impresses in practice and his 6-foot-5 frame means he has a similar build to Ausberry. He also plays for the USC basketball team and brings many of his hoops skills to the football field.
“I’m not too fast but I can get up the field and I can jump a little bit,” Cameron said. “My [biggest strength] is my overall athleticism.”
Cameron played in six games last season but made no catches.
Redshirt freshman Brice Butler and redshirt sophomore Brandon Carswell will also battle for playing time. They, along with true freshman De’Von Flournoy, looked poised to have bright careers in the years ahead based on their performances so far.
McCoy returns for his second season as the starting tight end after catching 22 passes for 256 yards and a touchdown a year ago. At 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds, he’ll be a big target in the passing game as well as an effective blocker.
“[The tight ends] have got to block, we’ve got to catch, we’ve just got to be able to do it all,” backup tight end Rhett Ellison said. “[McCoy] brings everything to the table.”
Ellison, a redshirt sophomore, caught four passes last year but says he enjoys the blocking aspect the most.
Sophomore Blake Ayles was off to a great start last season, including a touchdown catch against Ohio State, before a knee injury limited his effectiveness for the rest of the year. He is now fully recovered and has impressed coaches during fall practice with his sure hands and dynamic running after the catch.
With the depth returning at wide receiver and the experience at tight end, whoever ends up starting at quarterback for the Trojans will have many targets to choose from this fall.