USC Football Mailbag: What’s Wide Receiver Two-Deep?

Deontay Burnett during USC football practice at Howard Jones Field. (Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy)
Deontay Burnett during USC football practice at Howard Jones Field. (Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy) /

What will the Trojans’ WR two-deep look like in 2017? What is the base defense a 3-4 or a nickel? RoT’s USC football mailbag seeks answers.

As the final week of USC football spring camp arrives, questions unsurprisingly swirl around how the Trojan line up has shaken out so far.

With intrigue at receiver, running back and safety, this week’s mailbag dives into two-deeps, back ups and more.

It’s time to open the mailbag…

QUESTION: What will the two deep at wide receiver look like? — Greg

ANSWER: There are a couple of things that would suggest the wide receiver depth chart should be written in pencil for the time being — the first being the arrival of five-star talent Joseph Lewis in the fall. The second is a number of injury concerns which have prohibited Steven Mitchell and Trevon Sidney from competing in full and Josh Imatorbhebhe from competing in part.

With those disclaimers out of the way, spring has created the spine of a depth chart at wide receiver.

Michael Pittman and Jalen Greene will start on the outside. Deontay Burnett will start in the slot.

CHECK OUT: Ranking USC’s 10 Best Receivers Ever

Behind Pittman there’s Tyler Vaughns, who has pushed for first team reps himself. Behind Greene there’s Imatorbhebhe, who has the talent to contend for first team reps. And behind Burnett there’s Velus Jones, whose speed alone could make him a factor in 2017 as a member of the rotation.

Mitchell, Sidney and certainly Lewis could climb into that two-deep as they become available, but for now it’s fairly settled.

QUESTION: Who is our RT? Any young WRs separating themselves from the pack? Is base D a 3-4 (5-2) or a 2-4 (nickel base like last year)? — Lee

ANSWER: USC’s right tackle is…TBD. The list of players contending for that role is surprisingly long: Chris Brown, Roy Hemsley, Toa Lobendahn, Nico Falah and Andrew Voorhees to name a few. That’s not counting Nathan Smith once he returns from injury or the number of talented offensive line recruits who will be arriving for fall camp.

Everything seems to hinge on Lobendahn. If Lobendahn remains at center, Falah is likely to move outside to fill the role. If he leaves the center job to Falah, but shifts to left guard then most likely Brown, but perhaps Hemsley or Voorhees takes it. If he jumps out to tackle, then there’s your answer leaving Brown to take the left guard position and Falah to stay in the middle.

MORE DEPTH CHART: Projecting USC’s Post-Spring Lineup

As for the wide receivers, Michael Pittman and Tyler Vaughns have both gone back and forth pushing each other in the final weeks of camp. They’ve been the most impressive lately.

On the defensive formation, technically USC’s base is the 3-4, which is really a five-man front featuring three defensive lineman and two outside linebackers on the edge. But your question gets at the heart of the versatility of Clancy Pendergast’s scheme, as the Trojans used the two-lineman nickel package often enough to call it a base in 2016.

Simply put, USC’s base will change from game to game. Against Stanford, they’ll use the three linemen because the opposing offense dictates it. Against the Arizona’s of the world, they’ll go with the nickel, deploying Ajene Harris or Jamel Cook as a fifth defensive back.

Both lineups will feature heavily depending on the context.

QUESTION: Any news regarding Ykili Ross. Also what role can Dominic Davis take on next season? — Brandon

ANSWER: Safety Ykili Ross is now wearing the No. 14 and has been far more active this spring than when he was wearing the No. 30. Still, he hasn’t broken into the first team with Marvell Tell and Chris Hawkins ahead of him.

Dominic Davis wasn’t helped by the concussion which kept him out for the opening weeks of camp. With Ronald Jones II and Aca’Cedric Ware also sitting due to injury, it was Vavae Malepeai who enjoyed extra reps.

TRENDING: Vavae Malepeai Thriving on Opportunities

The problem for Davis is there are too many capable players ahead of him in the running back pecking order and he’s not the top option to fill Adoree’ Jackson’s role as a receiver out of the backfield. Velus Jones seems to have claimed that spot and Jack Jones could get a look as well.

QUESTION: How has the front 7 been looking? — Darryle

ANSWER: On Saturday, Clay Helton called them a “violent” group. That’s what they’ve shown all spring, with Uchenna Nwosu and the combination of Porter Gustin and Oluwole Betiku thriving off the edges.

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The Trojans appear to be getting steady contributions up front between Rasheem Green, Marlon Tuipulotu, Josh Fatu, Malik Dorton and Christian Rector while the linebackers remain a work in progress hampered by major depth problems.

The trouble with assessing the front seven’s performance, however, is that they haven’t been facing anything close to a full strength offensive front.

USC has had to lean on back up center Cole Smith, who doesn’t figure to play in 2017. They’ve mixed and matched at right tackle and left guard and lost starting right guard Viane Talamaivao midway through camp as well.

That means any perception of success for the Trojans in the front seven comes with a grain of salt. Still, they’ve held up their end of the bargain this spring.