If there’s one position group that could have the most to gain in USC football’s transition from Lane Kiffin’s pro-style offense to the Steve Sarkisian hurry-up no-huddle(HUNH) attack, it’s probably the wide receivers.
Two-receiver sets are now a thing of the past, as the Trojans will now deploy a three-wide base offense, with four-wide packages thrown in routinely.
While the Trojans have to find a way to replace the only Biletnikoff Award winner in school histroy, a stellar recruiting class and an ironic wealth of depth at receiver amid a low numbers crisis makes the USC receiving corps one of the best in the country.
What happened last year:
Going into last season, the Trojans were tasked with the problem of replacing Robert Woods. They did so by putting faith in Nelson Agohlor, who had a breakout season as a sophomore.
The Tampa native caught 56 passes for 918 yards and scored six touchdowns. The latter two of those state put Agholor ahead of Marqise Lee for the team lead.
Lee battled both injuries and a generally more conservative offense that saw his production drop in half. When healthy, Lee and Agholor formed one of the best receiver tandems in the country, as seen in the Las Vegas Bowl when they combined for 12 receptions, 212 yards and four touchdowns.
Mar 5, 2013; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Southern California Trojans receiver Darreus Rogers (84) catches a pass at spring practice at Howard Jones Field. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Third receiver Darreus Rogers(right) had a solid freshman season, catching 22 passes despite missing three games with a high ankle sprain. Depth receivers Victor Blackwell and George Katrib contributed reps on passing downs, along with then-senior De’Von Flournoy.
What’s gone on in camp:
Going into life after Lee, the Trojans have put a lot of stock in Agholor, as you would expect. He is now a junior and undoubtedly the No. 1 receiver, putting him in a similar situation to Lee last season.
But with the transition to the Sarkisian offense, Agholor is not being giving a set game plan and the flanker role like Kiffin gave to Lee after Woods.
Instead, Sarkisian and position coach Tee Martin are rotating everyone between flanker, split end and the new slot position in order to get all of the receivers acclimated with the new offense, as well find who fits each position the best.
So while redshirt freshmen Steven Mitchell has long been considered an ideal slot receiver, he’s been moved around along with everyone else.
Furthermore, camp has featured the great two-way debate, starring Adoree’ Jackson, JuJu Smith, Rahshead Johnson and Ajene Harris.
All four true freshmen came to USC with the capabilities of playing on either side of the ball, though Harris looks to have found permanent home at receiver in camp. The futures of Jackson, Smith and Johnson are very much in the air, as their positioning will likely be determined as an answer to defensive need vs. offensive potential.
The loss of strongside linebacker Jabari Ruffin could become a factor in Smith’s case, as the Trojans have toyed around with the possibility of playing Su’a Cravens as a linebacker, allowing for an additional safety on defense.
What to expect:
The immediate thing to note going into this season is that the Trojans will spread the ball around in the passing game considerably more than they did under Lane Kiffin. Last season in the first year of the Sarkisian HUNH offense, Washington had five receivers with at least 15 receptions, a feat that the Trojans have only done once in school history(2000).
Add in the fact that there’s no fewer than 10 scholarship players that could play receiver, including highly touted two-way freshmen Jackson and Smith, and the rotation at receiver is sure to be diverse.
Agholor likely winds up as the Trojans’ flanker and featured receiver, while Rogers should take a big step forward in his second season. He now has the task of living up to the expectations of wearing the No. 1 jersey, but look for Rogers to emerge as a sound possession receiver and a go-to target in the red zone.
Mar 11, 2014; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Southern California Trojans receiver Steven Mitchell (7) at spring practice at Howard Jones Field. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
At the slot position, Mitchell(left) and Jackson give the Trojans a wrinkle that USC hasn’t had on the perimeter since Reggie Bush left for the NFL Draft, and they’ll open much of the field for quarterback Cody Kessler to find a variety of targets.
In the end, this version of the USC receiving corps might not have the overall high-end talent of the 2012 group that featured both Woods and Lee, but the depth and variety of looks they’ll present defenses could make it one of the best units in recent memory.
Who will break out:
The easy answer is George Farmer. For the first time in a long time he’s fully healthy and has wowed coaches, teammates and the media thus far in camp.
If he can stay healthy throughout the season, he should be an integral part of the Sarkisian offense since he can effective play all three receiver positions.
After an ACL tear and just five receptions in 14 career games at USC, Farmer enters the season as an intriguing weapon, rather than a player with heaps of expectations. That could be a rather dangerous combination.