With a sly smile and reserved demeanor, redshirt freshman Tyler Vaughns is excited for the opportunity to make his presence felt. When asked whether or not he was ready to make his debut against the Western Michigan Broncos in the historic Los Angeles Coliseum, Vaughns couldn’t hold back his smile.
“Yeah,” he grinned. “I’m really excited.”
You would be, too, if you were Vaughns. He’s waited a year for his chance to shine in the spotlight. Like JuJu Smith-Schuster, Nelson Agholor, Marqise Lee and plenty more before him, Vaughns hopes to be the next USC receiver to break out and make a name for himself. Following an excellent spring and fall camp, Vaughns looks like he’s ready to make the jump.
But it didn’t happen overnight.
Coming from Bishop Amat High School, just a little over 20 miles away from the USC campus, Vaughns was seen by some as one of the top five receivers in the country when he was a high school senior. Vaughns has always had the physical talent. In his final season of high school, Reign of Troy writer Alicia de Artola described him as having “glue-like hands.” But the jump from high school to college was a big one.
While he had always stood out on the field growing up, Vaughns struggled to set himself apart from his teammates for the first time in his football career. Vaughns was redshirted his freshman season at USC. However, it was a humbling experience for him, and he says he’s better because of it.
“It really helped me in terms of knowing the game, knowing the playbook and all that,” Vaughns said. “So I’ll never take that year for granted. I worked my butt off. I was going against Adoree’ Jackson and [junior] Biggie [Marshall] everyday. So every day it was work. It wasn’t ever like ‘I’m a redshirt so I can just take it easy and chill.’ No it was business. It was a really good year for me.”
As the Trojans prepared to play Penn State in a Rose Bowl for the record books, Vaughns studied the play books. As a redshirt, his role remained on the sidelines in the heart-stopping victory over Penn State.
“During the bowl practices last year, I was up in [offensive coordinator Tee Martin’s] office going over the defenses,” Vaughns said. “I couldn’t recognize any of it. He’d quiz me on it, I’d go in and write it on his board or he’d give me a packet of routes to draw up.”
The learning curve was steep, but after spending time learning the X’s and O’s, the lightbulb turned on and the game has slowed down. Before, he was unfamiliar with the plays, taking his routes slow to avoid mistakes. Now, Vaughns is ready to go full speed.
With an offseason full of hype around redshirt sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold, one storyline of interest going into spring and fall camp was who would emerge as the big receiving threats for the Heisman candidate this season’s squad. And in a room full of talented athletes, Vaughns has stood out.
“Sometimes it looks like [Sam Darnold]’s just gliding out there and just kind of floating,” Martin said. “He gets open for the quarterback. He just has a knack for doing those types of things. I think it’s special, it’s unique.”
As for any personal goals ahead of the 2017 campaign, Vaughns has one: to start. He currently trails behind Jalen Greene in the depth chart, but Vaughns is determined that by the end of the season, that will have changed.
“He’s playing so much more confident right now,” Martin said. “He’s gotten bigger and stronger in the weight room. He knows what to do now so he’s playing bigger and faster and now you can see his skill set. Very smooth, great route runner, catch radius. He’s just a football player.”
As Trojan fans make their way into the Coliseum on Saturday, fans won’t be the only ones ready to start the season. After putting in the work, Vaughns will be a player to watch from now on, and he’s just as excited as anyone to see if this year will be his breakout season.
While the team had a remarkable season last year, he and the Trojans are hungrier for more. And this time around, Vaughns hopes he’ll be the one making the big play instead of watching history from the sideline.