The USC offense has undergone a dramatic transformation since the Trojans took the field against Arizona State last weekend.
When junior wide receiver Marqise Lee crumpled to the ground with a left knee injury last weekend against the Sun Devils, the Trojans lost their most prolific playmaker.
And when it was announced hours after the game that former head coach Lane Kiffin had been fired, USC cut loose its offensive playcaller for the last three and a half seasons.
Kiffin is gone for good. And even though Lee’s injury doesn’t seem to be as bad as was originally feared, as tests revealed no ligament damage, he’s been gimping around campus this week on crutches. And on Wednesday, USC Athletics posted on Twitter that “[Interim head coach Ed] Orgeron is hoping for a miraculous recovery to have [Lee] ready for Arizona.” So his return doesn’t appear to be imminent, despite the squad’s optimism.
Freshman Darreus Rogers and redshirt senior De’Von Fluornoy are both nursing ankle sprains, further weakening the group of wideouts. Therefore, under offensive coordinator Clay Helton, who will actually have to live up to his title now as the unit’s playcaller, USC will seemingly have to rely on some deep backups for at least a week or two — which could become a major concern considering the team’s lack of depth.
“Thank God it’s a bye week,” Helton said. “Hopefully we get a couple guys back, and we’ll see where we are next week.”
The team will likely count on sophomore Nelson Agholor to lead the depleted receiving corps. Agholor entered the season as a breakout candidate after recording 233 receiving yards and two touchdowns in USC’s final three games last season. But so far he’s struggled to make much of an impact, catching 11 passes and averaging just 38.4 yards through five games.
“I’m just worried about getting wins,” Agholor said. “All I can do is continue to get better.”
The role of redshirt sophomore Victor Blackwell is also expected to expand. Last year, Blackwell’s chances to prove himself were few and far between, as he caught just one pass.
But after Lee exited Saturday’s game, Blackwell replaced him in the starting lineup and notched his first two catches of the season, the second of which came on a crucial fourth-down play in the final quarter to keep USC’s faint hopes alive.
Blackwell lined up as the Trojans’ second starting wideout opposite Agholor throughout practice on Wednesday and had his number called on the first play of 11-on-11 drills, reeling in a 10-yard reception.
“I was really proud of Victor Blackwell coming in and doing the most with his opportunity,” Helton said. “We talked about that as an offense — you never know when you’ll get your opportunity.”
That statement is especially true for redshirt freshman Robby Kolanz, a walk-on who estimates he got about 15-20 snaps against the Sun Devils as his first taste of playing time for the Trojans after they were reduced to only two healthy scholarship wideouts.
“Being out there in front of the student section at Arizona State, just kinda looking around and seeing what I’m doing, I just had to pinch myself and lock in,” Kolanz said. “Once you get out there for a few plays, the game starts to slow down and it gets a lot better.”
It’s unclear how Kolanz will fit into Helton’s plans for the offense, if he does at all. But in his last post-game press conference, Kiffin said that the team would probably use Kolanz in three-wide sets if Lee was injured for an extended period of time.
It’s quite stunning that with the litany of talented receivers USC possesses, they might be forced to give significant playing time to walk-ons. But the Trojans are looking at it positively, as every player now has a chance to prove themselves.
“What [Orgeron] told us today was to prepare, because you don’t know who’s next,” Agholor said. “A lot of guys are gonna get great opportunities to do things with the ball and to make plays out there.”