USC Football’s 2017 receiving corps is built on potential, but the Trojans have more than enough of that for success.
The golden age of Trojan receivers is at a potential turning point in 2017.
Going back to 2010, when Robert Woods led the Trojans in receiving as a true freshman, the line of succession has been more or less clear.
Marqise Lee paired with Woods, then took his place. Nelson Agholor paired with Lee then took his place. JuJu Smith-Schuster paired with Agholor then took his place.
Sorting out Smith-Schuster’s successor is a more complicated situation, as is the entire future of the unit.
Here’s the best-case, worst-case for the Trojans at receiver in 2017:
Stars emerge while the USC WR two-deep becomes the best in the nation.
Though his arrival at USC was a bit more unheralded than the other receivers in the line of succession, Deontay Burnett could be the next link in the chain.
Coaches have raved about his work ethic this spring and anyone who watched the Rose Bowl knows that he brings plenty of talent to the table. Converting that talent into 1,000 or so yards on the season would be ideal.
Beyond Burnett, the possibilities are endless.
Considering Sam Darnold’s penchant for spreading the ball around the field, it’s conceivable to imagine a Trojan two-deep, if not three-deep, of real and diverse contributors.
The Trojans have a physical target in Michael Pittman, a five-star receiver coming out of high school last year, and the only one of USC’s five highly-touted pass catchers from the 2016 recruiting class to avoid a redshirt season.
At 6-foot-4, Pittman’s size makes him a mouth-watering prospect who could just as well be the next Biletnikoff-level receiver at USC.
Tyler Vaughns and Jalen Greene have the hands to replace Rogers as a third-down go-to guy. Greene also offers a trick play threat as a former quarterback.
Velus Jones is a speedster, capable of turning his spring breakout into a specialized role despite the crowd in the slot.
Meanwhile, a finally-healthy Steven Mitchell adds another weapon to the group.
And though Josh Imatorbhebhe, Trevon Sidney, Keyshawn “Pie” Young and incoming freshmen Joseph Lewis and Randal Grimes may take a back seat, they’ll be available to stand in as needed.
Potential doesn’t quite pan out.
The trouble for USC’s passing game in 2017 is how much of it is built on potential.
Burnett seems like a viable focal point, but the first 100-yard receiving game of his career was the Rose Bowl, when Penn State’s defense also had Smith-Schuster and Rogers to worry about.
The injury-prone Mitchell is USC’s most proven receiver coming into the season after Burnett. The rest are role players like Greene or freshmen with a lot to prove at the college level.
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Pittman and company possess heaps of talent, but recruiting stars don’t always translate into the ability to run routes with precision, get separation, play through contact and make the tough catches in the big moments.
If you’re considering a worst-case scenario for the Trojans, the 2007 receiving corps comes to mind. USC’s receiver group featured top recruits, but so underwhelming were the likes of Vidal Hazelton, Patrick Turner and David Ausberry, that tight end Fred Davis outpaced all other Trojan pass catchers by 300 yards. Fullback Stanley Havili was USC’s fourth-leading receiver.
That’s not to deride Davis or Havili, who were special targets at their positions, but John David Booty’s receiver options that year were noticeably limited.
As compelling as USC’s tight ends are, the last thing the Trojans want is for Daniel Imatorbhebhe or Tyler Petite to lead the team in receiving.
USC offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach Tee Martin hasn’t hit the jackpot on every receiver under his wing, but his track record is good enough to warrant faith in his abilities.
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The Trojans have recruited and developed receivers particularly well under Martin, so it stands to reason that this latest crop of pass catchers will come good.
Burnett already has undeniable chemistry with Darnold. In fact, several of the quarterback’s most jaw-dropping moments involved Burnett coming through with a clutch grab.
The bigger uncertainties lie with the rest of the supporting case, but there are so many options that one or two are bound to come good.
Maybe it’s Pittman and Mitchell. Maybe it’s Vaughns and Greene. Maybe it’s the incoming freshmen Lewis or Grimes.
Someone will step up and give Darnold an option.