USC was not missing Marqise Lee in their 52-13 demolition of Fresno State on Saturday. Nor will they.
The Trojans used roughly 532 different receivers on Saturday night –10 caught passes– including highly touted freshman JuJu Smith, who set a school record for receiving yards by a freshman in a season opener.
Smith, along with Adoree’ Jackson, were thrown into the fire immediately and looked right at home from the get go. The duo, clad in the jerseys that Marqise Lee and Robert Woods made famous, fit into a variety of deployments at receiver and gave Steve Sarkisian’s offense an extra gear.
After being listed second on the depth chart all week, Smith wound up making the start ahead of fellow true freshman Ajene Harris. Harris saw the field plenty, but wasn’t targeted until the second half and now sits third on the depth chart going into Stanford.
Smith on the other hand, was one of the Trojans’ primary receivers in the first half along with Nelson Agholor and Darreus Rogers(below right), who combined for 14 catches for 240 yards and two touchdowns in the game.
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Ironically, the big play came on the third drive of the game, on a play Trojans fans thoroughly cannot stand.
Smith was lined up in a four-wide twin stack formation, behind freshman tight end Bryce Dixon. After the snap, Kessler took a one-step drop back and fired it immediately to Smith, while Dixon set out a screen in front of him for a variant of the dreaded bubble screen.
Dixon’s block took out Fresno State cornerback Jamal Ellis. Smith caught the pass, turned on the jets, beat Derron Smith to the corner, and was off for a gain of 53 yards to set up the Trojans’ third successive touchdown to start the game.
It’s an interesting play given that it was a staple of the Lane Kiffin offense, but more so because of how different a quick screen can look with Sarkisian’s offense.
Sarkisian appropriated a lot of Oregon’s tendencies going into last season. Twin receivers stacked out wide was a look that Chip Kelly implemented in the middle of the 2012 season, and as seen in Smith’s 53-yard jaunt, has incredible value with the Trojans’ personnel.
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Sticking with the freshmen, Jackson was mainly used inside as a slot receiver, in addition to lining up in split-backs.
The Serra High product caught his first pass on a quick slant from the slot and immediately got rocked by Fresno State’s star safety, Derron Smith. It was a scary three seconds for the Trojans but Jackson got up, flipped the ball proudly and embraced his ‘welcome to college football’ moment as well as he could have.
An hour later, late in the second quarter, Jackson was officially off the mark in terms of scoring, catching Cody Kessler’s third touchdown pass on an 18-yard post route.
He took the field for 15 plays on offense and looked just as comfortable as he did on defense, where he played cornerback.
At tight end, Dixon had a stellar game for a debut. Not only did his screen break Smith free for 53 yards, but he provided a pivotal block in the second quarter on a Victor Blackwell screen, and caught a 22-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter.
Senior tight end Randall Telfer was targeted just once, coming in the red zone and late in the second quarter. He provided sound blocking throughout the game, but him being sparingly used as a contributor to the passing game could be a result of him being one of Sarkisian’s red zone targets or a strategic decision moving forward, with Stanford looming in Week 2.
Either way, Telfer will get a significant amount of playing time moving forward, as backup tight end and walk-on Chris Willson broke his foot in the opener.
Another receiver without much in terms of targets despite starting was George Farmer. He made two catches and was targeted three times, but was rarely Kessler’s first read. Farmer beat out Rogers in fall camp for a starting spot and is expected to be a big contributor this season.
As for Rogers, he was big early for the Trojans, catching three passes on the opening 17-play touchdown drive, with all three converting first downs. As a true possession receiver, Rogers looks to be the go-to guy on critical passing downs, which should open space for a wealth weapons like Agholor and Smith.
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Even Blackwell(left), a player lost in the Lane Kiffin shuffle, looked like a weapon on Saturday, giving the Trojans’ unprecedented depth.
Agholor, the Trojans’ preseason All-American, had a conservative game for him compared to the end of last season, and that’s far from being critical and more a testament to how much depth there is in the new offense.
He was targeted eight times, but it didn’t feel like he was being force-fed. Last year with Lee injured, Agholor drew opponents’ best cover corners, a matchup problem that he likely won’t face this season if the spread-out distribution continues.
Agholor had five catches and two touchdowns, including two highlight-reel snags.
One of which was the Trojans’ second touchdown of the game on a jump ball in the end zone. The other, was a cerebral play from both Kessler and Agholor in the second quarter.
After being flushed out of the pocket, Kessler scrambled and looked to the right towards Agholor, who ran a second-read curl route. Seeing Kessler in trouble, Agholor turned it into a curl-and-go, allowing Kessler to lob a pass down sideline as he evaded pressure.
The pass hit Agholor in the facemask, and flipped into the air before he was able to haul it on the dive, picking up 34 yards. Early last season, that may have been a play that wound up as a turnover.
Overall, the Trojans’ receivers looked to be in mid-season form. Despite a host of freshmen and veterans that had to learn a new scheme, there wasn’t a lull in Week 1 like there could have been.
The receiving corps might continue being as all-world as they looked against Fresno State, but one thing’s for sure: with the incredible depth on the perimeter, there stands the possibility that could be the best full receiving corps that USC has ever had.
This isn’t Dwayne Jarrett, Steve Smith and big drop off to Chris McFoy. This is a solid dozen receivers in the passing game that are both expected and capable of contributing at a high level.
It couldn’t have gone any better in Week 1 for Tee Martin’s bunch. Stanford’s physical secondary now awaits their arrival.
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How would you grade the wide receivers' performance vs. Fresno State?