When the departed members of last year’s USC Rose Bowl-winning team were presented with their championship rings on Saturday, it was a joyous moment. It was a culmination of difficult years of sanctions, scholarship losses and vacated wins.
However, the ring ceremony also highlighted the number of star players the Trojans will need to replace this season, specifically at the wide receiver position, as both JuJu Smith-Schuster and Darreus Rogers head off to the NFL. The loss of 2016’s top two pass catchers opens up the question of who will emerge as star redshirt sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold’s new favorite targets.
Saturday’s spring game at the Coliseum may have provided some clarity. With experienced receivers junior Deontay Burnett and redshirt senior Steven Mitchell Jr. out with lingering injuries along with redshirt sophomore tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe, many new faces got a chance to shine on the larger stage.
“It was a really interesting thing that we had this year with JuJu and Darreus gone,” Darnold said. “We needed two new guys to step in, and I think those guys have done a really good job — the receiving corps as a whole — and I’m pretty comfortable right now honestly.”
Saturday’s young group of receivers got off to a hot start during the scrimmage portion of the spring game. Redshirt freshman Tyler Vaughns caught two early 14-yard passes, and speedy redshirt freshman Velus Jones Jr. hauled in a difficult grab on the sideline for 21 yards as Darnold scrambled outside of the pocket.
When spring enrollee Jack Sears entered the game at quarterback, the receiving corps experienced little drop-off. Sophomore wideout Michael Pittman Jr. caught two
first-down passes from the new signal caller, showing off the size and strength that the Trojans’ coaching staff has raved about.
“We just have chemistry with all of our receivers,” Darnold said. “There are different ways to build it and learn it — different routes and stuff like that. I thought we improved on [our chemistry] today.”
USC’s receivers also showed that they can do more than just catch the ball. On a reverse play, former quarterback-turned-wideout Jalen Greene caught a screen, only to drop back for a pass. The redshirt junior then threw a perfect pass through two defenders that Jones almost caught for a touchdown, if not for a last-minute breakup by senior cornerback Jonathan Lockett. Greene, who threw a 75-yard touchdown pass in 2015, showed he can beat defenses in a variety of ways.
USC’s next reverse play attempt was more successful. After a handoff, redshirt freshman running back Vavae Malepeai pitched the ball to Jones, who took it the opposite direction, rushing for a huge 34-yard gain. The versatile Jones showed flashes of being the Trojans’ next all-purpose star, in the same vein as Joe McKnight or Adoree’ Jackson.
In the red-zone period of the spring game, Vaughns capped off the receiving corps’ excellent day with a leaping 20-yard touchdown grab while heavily covered in the end zone. He finished the afternoon with three catches for 48 yards. Pittman Jr. had three grabs for 30 yards and Greene recorded three catches for 27 yards.
“It was really nice to see a couple of playmakers like Michael Pittman Jr. and Tyler Vaughns make some nice plays in the red zone,” head coach Clay Helton said. “It was good to see Sam [Darnold] pitch and catch that first half and show great accuracy.”
While it was an all-around promising showing for the new crop of Trojan pass catchers, the group still showed some growing pains, including a couple of drops and miscommunications on routes. However with the leadership of Darnold and a full summer of team-building ahead, Helton hopes those mistakes are minimized come the fall.
“When you deal with young wideouts and they don’t run the exact right routes, [Darnold] never shows frustration,” Helton said. “He communicates and says, ‘Hey, this is what I expect from you.’ I really appreciated his maturity and leadership this spring.”