For years under Pete Carroll, tight end was one of USC’s most productive and valuable positions. Then, for years under Lane Kiffin it wasn’t.
Now with Steve Sarkisian at the helm, there is genuine belief that Trojan tight ends might rise to elite level once more.
If injuries and off-the-field issues don’t stand in the way that is.
The Trojans struggled to field healthy scholarship tight ends in 2013. Both Randall Telfer and Xavier Grimble were less than 100% for most of the year, while Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick failed to make the most of his opportunities. At multiple points during the season USC fielded a tight end unit composed solely of walk-ons.
Sarkisian’s arrival from Washington, where he nurtured Austin Seferian-Jenkins into a premiere tight end, seemed to bode well for the position, but Grimble’s surprising decision to leave for the NFL and Cope-Fitzpatrick’s academic troubles have put a damper on that feeling.
Still, the addition of four-star tight end Bryce Dixon and Telfer’s return to fitness could be all Sarkisian needs to make this group stand out.
What happened last year:
Both Grimble and Telfer suffered injuries which kept them out for parts of the offseason, which seemed to set the stage for much of what transpired for USC tight ends in 2013.
Telfer was limited to just six catches for 78 yards and one touchdown. Going down with a knee injury against Notre Dame, he missed the following three games and struggled to find his footing when he returned.
Grimble followed Telfer’s lead by picking up an injury against Arizona but he fared better on the season with 25 catches for 270 yards and two touchdowns, earning him a Pac-12 honorable mention.
However, neither truly lived up the potential that both have carried with them since becoming Trojans.
On the fringes, Cope-Fitzpatrick appeared in 12 games but his one catch on the season was overshadowed by the notable drops he had against Notre Dame, a game in which he too suffered an injury.
With all three scholarship tight ends unavailable, the Trojans turned to walk-on offensive tackle Nathan Guertler and Wake Forest walk-on transfer Chris Willson, a converted quarterback, to fill the gaps.
What’s gone on in camp:
Cope-Fitzpatrick’s suspension due to academic ineligibility rocked the unit, which was thin enough after Grimble’s departure.
The junior impressed during spring ball and looked poised to make waves in the new season.
With Cope-Fitzpatrick out, Dixon has stepped into an increased role during Fall camp and has impressed with his skills in the passing game. However, as can be expected from a true freshman, he has a ways to go in terms of picking up his ability as a blocker.
The dark horse performer of the offseason has been Willson, whose official move from tight end to quarterback has resulted in a bulkier frame and more power because of it.
Meanwhile, Telfer has been praised by new tight ends coach Marques Tuiasosopo for his leadership in camp. Even more encouraging, Telfer says he is 100% healthy for the first time in a long time and his play seems to be reflecting that fact.
What to expect:
There are two likely scenarios for USC tight ends in 2014.
Bad news first.
Telfer has a well-established injury history and it would surprise no one if he were to fall prey to the injury bug again this season.
If Telfer goes down then the weight of the position would fall on Dixon’s shoulders.
Unfortunately Dixon is a true freshman and regardless of his clear talent, true freshman don’t always light the world on fire. If Dixon can’t carry the load then the Trojans face the prospect of once again relying on walk-ons, however capable they may be.
In short, USC is one injury away from losing a valuable dimension on offense.
Now for the good news.
USC is also completely capable of fielding two phenomal tight ends.
It is easy to forget that Telfer set the USC freshman record for catches in 2011 and earned Freshman All-American mentions, but the redshirt senior has all the tools to set even more records as a Trojan.
Sarkisian helped Sefarian-Jenkins to a Mackey Award, which goes to the top tight end in the nation, and it’s not that much of a stretch to suggest that he could do the same with a healthy Telfer.
As for Dixon, he truly is a talented player and stand out freshmen are all the rage these days. With the benefit of learning from a leader like Telfer and the immediate promise of playing time, Dixon is a potential shoo in for some freshman All-American attention himself.
Who will break out:
Since Telfer has been here all along, the easy answer is Dixon.
At 6-4, 240 pounds, Dixon has the build and the athleticism to make waves catching the football and it appears that Sarkisian will give him every opportunity to do so.
While he will be expected to gain some bulk and improve his blocking to be a consistent presence on the field, he already possesses the necessary speed and agility to make himself a target in passing situations.