Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
News broke on Friday that Steven Mitchell would miss all of the 2013 season with torn ligaments in his right knee, after going down during summer workouts at USC’s Cromwell Field. The loss puts the Trojans down to just five scholarship receivers, and after 2012 Fred Biletnikoff Award winner Marqise Lee, the remaining four wide outs have a grand total of 21 career catches.
It’s a loss that puts USC behind the eight ball due to the scholarship restrictions, the spring loss of George Farmer and Robert Woods’s early entry to the NFL.
That said, it’ll be interesting to see how Lane Kiffin and Clay Helton respond to the loss schematically. Last season, the offense was predicated on getting Lee and Woods the ball in the passing game. Even though Kiffin’s play calling heavily favored Lee, the presence of Woods at least gave USC some sort of convoluted balance, despite the pair accounting for 68 percent of the team’s receptions, up from 60 percent in 2011.
USC stressed the short range passing game, which utilized USC’s tight ends as split wide blockers on screen patterns and decoys on routes over the middle. Add in the fact that Randall Telfer was hampered by injuries throughout the year and Soma Vainuku was a liability as a pass catcher, and it’s easy to formulate why Lee and Woods took more of a share of the passing game, while receptions by tight ends and fullbacks were reduced by 23 percent from 2011.
With Woods now running routes for the Buffalo Bills and two season-ending injuries already in the books with Farmer and Mitchell, the whole dynamic of a top heavy receiver corps could either change or be more pronounced.
Nelson Agholor, who came on strong last November, could theoretically fill in the void of Woods, while Lee gets even more receptions. With just five scholarship receivers, going all-in with another receiving duo could be a reactionary answer to depth issues and favor continuity, though it would likely further the predictability of the Trojans’ offense.
A more well-rounded approach would be to favor the depth the Trojans do have, which is at tight end. Both Xavier Grimble and the aforementioned Randall Telfer are plus-receivers from the tight end position and could be used more as targets than decoys, along with sophomore Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick, who progressed this spring.
Not only would more tight end targets play into the personnel issues that the Trojans must deal with, but it would create more of a balanced pass attack and create space for Marqise Lee. With linebackers and safeties forced to cover USC’s tight ends with more conviction, Lee could find himself with more one-on-one coverage. The counterpoint however, is that Lee is a serious Heisman Trophy contender and a player who you’d like to get the ball in the hands of as much as possible.
As of now, the reduced numbers will force USC to split the tight ends wide more often than they already do. Whether or not that makes for more screens to Lee or an enhanced role from Grimble and Telfer, remains to be seen.
Either way, it’s imperative that USC gets the most of out Darreus Rogers and Victor Blackwell, who find themselves needing to stay healthy and produce as the third receiver option.