USC football has enjoyed a long string of great receivers, but productive seniors at the position have been rare. What does that mean for the 2016 senior class?
Can USC football expect increased production from its three senior receivers — Darreus Rogers, De’Quan Hampton and Isaac Whitney — in 2016?
Recent track records suggest the answer is, simply put, probably not.
In fact, it’s been awhile since a senior scholarship receiver has even caught a pass at USC.
The first reception by Rogers, Hampton or Whitney will be the first by a senior since De’Von Flournoy completed a 3-yard catch against Stanford in November 2013.
USC has had three different head coaches in that span.
It has been exceedingly rare for USC to field a single prominent senior receiver in the past decade, let alone two or three.
Over the last five years, USC has had exactly two senior scholarship wide receivers catch a pass. De’Von Flournoy had nine receptions in 2013. Brandon Carswell had 18 receptions in 2011.
Ronald Johnson and David Ausberry, with 692 and 252 yards receiving respectively in 2010, were the last pair of senior receivers to contribute significantly during the same season.
There haven’t been two seniors at USC this century who have come close to matching their combined production either.
All that is to say, it has been exceedingly rare for USC to field a single prominent senior receiver in the past decade, let alone two or three.
There are many reasons for that. The simplest is that the Trojans had had too many exceptional receivers in recent history. None of them have stuck around for their final campaign.
Like Robert Woods, Marqise Lee and Nelson Agholor before him, JuJu Smith-Schuster is unlikely to contribute to the numbers for USC seniors next year.
Another contributing factor is the steady flow of talented young wide outs the Trojans have mined in recruiting.
For every Woods that leaves as a junior, there’s a spectacular underclassman like Lee, then Agholor, then Smith-Schuster to replace him instead of an upperclassman who has been coming steadily up through the program.
The third factor to consider, and probably most significant for USC’s trio of senior receivers, is that talent at receiver doesn’t usually wait to blossom. The most productive senior receivers in the Pac-12 last year were by and large established products.
So it goes at USC, if you’re not an established contributor as a junior, history says you won’t be one as a senior.
For Rogers, who has averaged somewhere around 25 receptions and 250 yards receiving each of his three seasons as a Trojan, that means that a large boost in production should be unexpected in 2016.
Though Rogers has flashed talent, he has also established a pattern. With a penchant for using exceptional body control to secure difficult catches while suffering mental lapses on more routine attempts, Rogers’ inconsistency hasn’t been tempered by experience.
Expecting that to change in Year 4 may be expecting too much.
The situation surrounding expectations for Hampton and Whitney is slightly different.
Hampton made headlines during spring camp when his praise of Max Browne took a turn towards criticism of graduated Trojan quarterback Cody Kessler. He bemoaned how Kessler failed to distribute the ball last year, focusing in on one receiver while ignoring open targets across the field. Per Hampton, Browne does a better job of finding the open man, not just his favorite target.
The junior college transfer had 15 receptions for 165 yards in 12 games of action during his muted first season at USC. If his claims that distribution — not ability or availability — hampered the Trojan receivers are correct, than it’s safe to expect a significant increase in his production.
Unlike Rogers, Hampton’s senior season comes after just one year in the program. It’s easier to pass off low numbers as a reflection of the settling in period.
However, an impressive spring camp featured no payoff during USC’s Spring Game, which should be a worrying sign to those hoping Hampton will come good in 2016.
If there’s one receiver with strong odds of rising as a senior it’s Whitney.
A junior college transfer like Hampton, Whitney established himself early as a key blocker on screens and occasional contributor. Just when it seemed Whitney’s role in the offense would grow even more, he broke his collarbone shortly after making his first start against Washington.
With just eight catches in five games however, Whitney’s ability to emerge as a major receiving presence comes under the same scrutiny as Hampton’s.
Though any one of USC’s senior receivers could emerge as valuable contributors to the passing game, recent history suggests that underclassmen like Steven Mitchell, Ajene Harris or Deontay Burnett are more likely to take on larger roles.
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Even more likely than that?
One or two of the Trojans five receiver signees from the class of 2016 will leapfrog their way into a starring role beside Smith-Schuster, leaving the rest in a scrap for the remaining touches.
Early enrollees Michael Pittman and Josh Imatorbhebhe have a head start, but the likes of Tyler Vaughns, Trevon Sidney and Velus Jones are all capable of making an early impact.
Can Rogers, Hampton and Whitney carve out a role despite the trends working against them? They have the talent, but it’s the on-field play that head coach Clay Helton is looking for.