COLUMN: Let’s thank JuJu for the catches and the drops

I’m certain that I was just one of the thousands of people who were fervently refreshing junior Juju Smith-Schuster’s social media accounts Saturday afternoon in search of an answer to the question:

“One more year?”

When the standout receiver tweeted that a decision on his senior season would be announced in “a couple hours” Saturday, it was 3:19 p.m.

With eyes glued to my smartphone, I rapidly began updating my Twitter feed at 5:19 p.m. Everybody knows that “a couple” entails two hours, right? Nope, still nothing from the receiver concerning his decision.

Then, at exactly 6:00 p.m. on Saturday, Smith-Schuster dropped the bombshell on Twitter: He will forgo his senior season and declare for the 2017 NFL Draft.

Smith-Schuster’s announcement-tweet included a letter to the Trojan Family. In the letter, he said, “I have loved my time at USC and wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. Playing for USC was truly a dream come true, and I am proud of what we were able to accomplish in three years.” He also noted that USC will always be a huge part of him and that he sees the program is in a position to compete for a national championship.

Looking back, there’s no question that Smith-Schuster will go down as one of the greatest Trojan wideouts in USC history.

Statistically, Smith-Schuster ranks fourth all-time in career receptions by a USC receiver (213); he also ranks fifth all-time in Trojan history in receiving yards (3,032) and touchdowns (25).

And within his bundle of impressive statistics, there are countless JuJu memories that will be replayed over and over in the minds of Trojan fans for years to come.

We’ll never forget the time Smith-Schuster, in the open field, pointed out Utah defensive back Dominique Hatfield before viciously stiff-arming him to the Coliseum turf as USC upset the then-No. 3 ranked Utes. Or how about the time in 2015 when he reeled in eight catches for 138 yards and a touchdown against Arizona — all with a pretty-much-broken right hand. In 2016, Smith-Schuester had a pair of three-touchdown receiving performances against Arizona State (Oct. 1) and Arizona (Oct. 15).

In last week’s Rose Bowl Game against No. 5 Penn State, Smith-Schuster made the play that sparked the Trojans’ 17-0 run over the final 8:15 of regulation to defeat the Nittany Lions. Redshirt freshman quarterback Sam Darnold found Smith-Schuster streaking down the sideline for a 27-yard connection that put the Trojans at the Penn State 3-yard line before USC proceeded to punch in a crucial late-game score. The catch, which Smith-Schuster made with one arm, was initially ruled incomplete, but the call was overturned and the catch confirmed upon further review.

If you asked me what play got USC back into that Rose Bowl, I would tell you that this catch in the fourth quarter by Smith-Schuster is what catapulted the Trojans back into the game.

No doubt, Smith-Schuster’s receptions and clutch performances (seven catches, 133 yards and a touchdown in Pasadena last week) have landed him a permanent spot in Trojan football lore. But, now looking back pensively, I feel that one of Smith-Schuster’s most pivotal plays may have been one of the few times he didn’t catch the ball when targeted.

No matter how you look at USC’s season, one cannot deny that Sam Darnold was the golden boy for the Trojans this year. Without the emergence of Darnold, there was simply no hope for the Trojans to even dream of a Rose Bowl berth.

We’ve all heard the story a hundred times over now: USC gets off to an anemic start offensively this season; redshirt junior Max Browne out as quarterback; enter Darnold.

Now let’s take a look at the timing of the quarterback switch and the role Smith-Schuster played in installing Darnold as the Trojans’ permanent signal caller.

Browne was replaced by Darnold after the Trojans suffered a 27-10 loss to then-No. 7 Stanford in Week 3. On a third down play in the fourth quarter against the Cardinal, Browne targeted Smith-Schuster for what would be his final passing attempt as the Trojans’ starting quarterback. 

A solid throw from Browne failed to connect with Smith-Schuster in the end-zone. The receiver was tied up with a Stanford defender in the process of trying to make the catch; he failed to reel in the ball with his one available arm and the pass fell incomplete.

The ball hits the turf. It’s fourth down, and Browne trots off the field for the final time as USC’s starter. The failure to reel in that accurate dart to Smith-Schuster’s hands just may have saved the Trojans’ season.

If Smith-Schuster somehow found a way to catch that pass, the whole course of the 2016 campaign would have been altered in an unknown manner.

It would be hard to imagine the USC coaching staff making the switch that they did in Week 4 for Darnold had Browne connected with Smith-Schuster on that play, which would have been a 46-yard touchdown pass late in the Stanford game. If Smith-Schuster found a way to reel in the pass with one arm — as was nearly routine during his time as a Trojan — who knows how long Browne would have gone in the season as USC’s head signal-caller?

In retrospect, most can agree that head coach Clay Helton’s switch to Darnold was the turning point of the Trojans’ season. Without the incompletion to Smith-Schuster in the late stages of the Stanford game, we may have seen more of Browne this season, and less of Darnold at quarterback.

And as harsh as it may sound, the longer Browne stood in as USC quarterback, the lesser the likelihood was of the Trojans making a bowl game in 2016, let alone the Rose Bowl Game.

No Darnold, no Rose Bowl: that’s a statement every USC follower should be able to agree with.

As strange as it may sound, Smith-Schuster’s drop on a September night in Palo Alto may have been the birth pangs of the Sam Darnold era — and the commencement of USC’s Rose Bowl run.

And with that, the Trojan Family collectively should be saying, “Thank you for everything, Juju, even the drops.” Whether it was making one-handed catches that left us scratching our heads, delivering bone-crushing hits, playing with crushed bones or even “JuJu-ing on that beat” on a Thursday night against Cal, you always left us wanting more.

Angel Viscarra is a sophomore studying broadcast and digital journalism. His column, Viscarra’s Vice, runs on Tuesdays.