Robert Woods played all of 2011 with an injured ankle, but it didn’t stop him from putting up the Pac-12 Conference’s most heralded year for a wide receiver, as he set both conference and school records for catches. With news of an MRI revealing more damage in Robert Woods’ ankle, the Trojans could be in serious trouble should the junior miss time, as the Trojan offense relies on the impact of a two-headed attack at receiver, with Woods and Marqise Lee.
Last season started with the Barkley-to-Woods connection being the only source of offense for the Trojans. Woods caught 17 passes against Minnesota and yet USC scored just five offensive touchdowns total against Minnesota and Utah to open the season. The Trojans were one dimensional, with the entire offense hinging on Matt Barkley getting the ball to Robert Woods, which forced defenses to control the running game, and afford to double and triple team Woods since there wasn’t another offensive threat.
The emergence of Marqise Lee in the subsequent weeks opened up not only the running game, but the passing game. Woods drew defenders to create space for Lee, and both receivers opened holes that enabled Barkley to hit his freshman tight-ends, Randall Telfer and Xavier Grimble.
Without Woods, in theory, the Trojans go back to square one, only with a Barkley-to-Lee connection dominating the Lane Kiffin playbook.
Suddenly, the USC running game that took over at times towards the end of the season in 2011, starts to take even more pressure that it had when Tre Madden went down for the season back in March. Curtis McNeal returns as the starter, while D.J. Morgan has to show he’s over his fumbling tendencies that benched him for stretches last year. Nelson Agholor is a wildcard as an incoming freshman and Buck Allen has yet to break in.
Should Woods miss time, another receiver will have to step up to compliment Lee, if the Trojans intend on keeping up the firepower we saw last November. But while much has been said of the arsenal at the disposal of Matt Barkley, predicting an emerging star isn’t exactly science.
George Farmer has battled injuries and Darreus Rogers is a raw but talented freshman. De’Von Flournoy will most likely thrive in a third or fourth receiver role, but not as a second line option for Barkley. Victor Blackwell has yet to crack the Kiffin bench, but come August, anything is possible.
The weight of a Woods-less passing game will likely fall on the shoulders of the USC tight-ends. In 2007, Fred Davis was able to open up the Trojan offense by being an all-world tight-end, which allowed Chauncey Washington to get room to run out of the backfield, and opened space for Patrick Turner and Vidal Hazelton on the secondary.
Given the talent and progression of Randall Telfer and Xavier Grimble, they can salvage a lot of the damage that an absence to Woods would bring, even if it was Woods that created their success a year ago.
Double-barrel tight-ends can either hem the linebackers into the box to open space in the flat for screens, or it can allow the secondary to commit to the pass over the middle, creating opportunities for play-action passes to break down blitzes. Also, splitting Telfer or Grimble wide could pull a linebacker out of the box to open lanes for McNeal and Morgan.
Obviously, the effect of Telfer and Grimble has the most impact with a healthy Woods, as defenses have to commit to a bevy of playmakers on offense, but even without Woods, they can alleviate a lot of the pressure on Barkley and the running back if the drop off between Lee and the second receiver isn’t too extensive.
It’ll take a team effort for the Trojans to weather a loss of Woods, but the pieces are there, it’s just a matter of stepping up.
Then again, Woods was hurt all of last season and it didn’t stop him.