It wouldn’t be USC football season without a depth issue highlighted by a sanction-affected roster low on numbers.
Monday night, head coach Steve Sarkisian told reporters that junior tight end Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick was ruled academically ineligible and would miss the 2014 season, despite being able to practice.
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It’s a crucial blow for the Trojans, as the tight end position was the one spot where SC couldn’t afford to lose anyone.
Yet they did. And without JCF, Troy has just two scholarship tight ends.
It’s not a bind that Sarkisian was hoping for when he walked on campus last December and inherited a strong duo of soon-to-be senior tight ends, highlighted by stand out Xavier Grimble.
But alas, Grimble declared for the NFL draft and now academics have claimed his understudy as a casualty.
Just how will the Trojans cope without Cope-Fitzpatrick? Here’s a look at who and where Sarkisian’s offense will turn to.
Randall Telfer (RS-Sr.)
Telfer had a coming out party as a redshirt-freshman in 2011, catching 26 passes and scoring five touchdowns. Since then however, he’s battled injuries that have taken a toll on both his playing time and mobility.
A knee injury suffered against Notre Dame last year cost him three games, and in the last two seasons, he’s been limited to just 18 receptions for 178 yards and five scores.
With Grimble and Cope-Fitzpatrick out of the picture, those numbers should improve if Telfer can stay healthy, as he’ll undoubtedly be the Trojans’ No. 1 tight end come opening day.
Under Lane Kiffin, Telfer was used predominantly as a blocker, often lined up split out wide. In Sarkisian’s new offense, look for him to be lined up as a receiver just as often, but with more targets in the passing game.
If the Trojans could get a full season out of Telfer, with production similar to that of his freshman numbers, you would have to imagine that Sarkisian would be pleased.
Jan 4, 2014; San Antonio, TX, USA; West tight end Bryce Dixon (89) after the U.S. Army All-American Bowl high school football game at the Alamodome. The West won 28-6. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
Bryce Dixon (Fr.)
A four-star tight end out of St. Bonaventure in Ventura, Dixon is the biggest initial benefactor of Cope-Fitzpatrick being ineligible.
He’s likely to assume a co-starter role alongside Telfer, and his athleticism gives the Trojans a game-breaking threat in the vertical passing game.
The 6-foot-4, 230 pounder was a star basketball player in high school and has the ability to play a role that Austin Sefarian-Jenkins mastered at Washington under Sarkisian.
The big concern with Dixon, as with any freshman, is that JCF’s inactivity throws him into the fire immediately, along with the pressure to produce as a veteran.
Ideally, the Trojans would’ve liked to break Dixon in alongside Cope-Fitzpatrick. Now it becomes a case of whether or not Dixon can adapt to the size and speed of the college game on the fly.
Sarkisian told reporters on Monday night that he’s confident that Dixon can.
Chris Willson (RS-Sr.)
Despite being a walk-on, Willson has experience as a blocking tight end. Injuries plagued the Trojans tight ends a year ago, forcing Willson and offensive tackle Nathan Guertler to each get a start under their belts in place of Grimble and Telfer. He even caught a pass.
Sarkisian mentioned Willson by name on Monday night to media as an asset that the Trojans will lean on.
Look for the former Wake Forest pitcher to spell Telfer and Dixon in various packages, where he could play a similar block-first tight end role that Telfer played alongside Grimble the past two years.
Fellow walk-on Shane Sullivan should see playing time as a blocking tight end as well, though he’s behind the curve after missing the spring due to a torn ACL suffered last season.
Much has been made –even in this breakdown– about Sarkisian’s use of tight ends at Washington, mostly based on Sefarian-Jenkins winning the Mackey Award.
But it’s worth noting that the Husky offense primarily functioned that way because of the presence of ASJ, not that ASJ was a product of Sarkisian’s offense.
Sefarian-Jenkins caught 141 passes in three seasons at Washington. In the five years that Sarkisian coached at UW, tight ends not named ASJ caught a grand total of just 60 passes.
Mar 11, 2014; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Southern California Trojans coach Steve Sarkisian at spring practice at Howard Jones Field. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
That’s 12 receptions per season, heavily skewed by Kavario Middleton catching 26 passes in Sarkisian’s first season.
In 2010, the Huskies had just six passes completed to a tight end all season. Sefarian-Jenkins caught at least that many in game seven times.
Even going back to his days as the Trojans’ offensive coordinator, Sarkisian has showed that he plays the cards he has, not necessarily the roles that complete his offense.
As evidence, look at 2007 when Fred Davis won the Mackey Award.
He was the Trojans’ featured receiver as a tight end because a lack of experience in the receiving corps.
USC was one year removed from Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith, and starting highly touted yet under-performing receivers Patrick Turner, Vidal Hazleton and Davis Ausberry.
So with USC having just two scholarship tight ends, perhaps we should slow the roll on the tight end talk and acknowledge that adaption might the best way to combat a lack of depth, not strictly succession.
With the extreme –yet moderately inexperienced– depth that the Trojans have at receiver, using tight ends more as secondary compliments than targets in the passing game could be a plausible option for Sarkisian.
There’s nine players on scholarship who will see time at receiver in fall camp, not to mention walk-ons like George Katrib and Aaron Minor that have advanced positions on the depth chart.
That’s a much bigger number than two.
Let’s see how it all plays out.