How USC tight ends came back from near-extinction

PASADENA, CA - JANUARY 02: Tight end Taylor McNamara
PASADENA, CA - JANUARY 02: Tight end Taylor McNamara /

Two years ago, the USC tight ends unit had an Ivy League walk-on transfer getting first-team reps. Now, they’re fielding Mackey Award candidates. What changed?

Ahead of the 2015 season, USC Football’s tight end picture looked so bleak even the Trojans’ media guide couldn’t find a way to sugarcoat it.

“USC’s most worrisome offensive unit from a depth and experience standpoint in 2015 is tight end,” the usually cardinal-tinted guide said.

Worrisome was a bit of an understatement.

Entering the year, the Trojans knew they would be without graduated starter Randall Telfer, leaving the unproven Bryce Dixon and Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick to carry the load.

What the Trojans didn’t know was neither of those options would play another down for USC.

Steve Sarkisian and his staff signed four-star tight end prospect Tyler Petite in February, but even then, the head coached talked about the possibility of deploying new linebacker signees Porter Gustin and Osa Masina at tight end.

That initially unlikely experiment became more realistic as the USC tight ends situation began to circle the drain.

When spring camp started in March, Dixon was nowhere to be seen, mired in the student-conduct investigation that would ultimately see him expelled in May.

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images /

The Trojans were left with Cope-Fitzpatrick as the only scholarship tight end on the roster, and he had missed the 2014 season due to academic ineligibility. Walk-on Columbia-transfer Connor Spears took first-team reps that spring and became a serious option for major playing time.

Of course, Cope-Fitzpatrick did not make it to the season yet again.

By June, there were hints his academic eligibility was far from a certainty. A couple of months later, after he was named to the 2015 Mackey Award watch list, he was ruled out for the second consecutive season to focus on academics.

2015 FLASHBACK: The Golden Age of USC Tight Ends Has Passed

At least by then, USC had taken steps to shore up the position with moves that would ultimately pay huge dividends.

Going into 2015, the unit had a combined total of one career catch between them: McNamara’s only snag at Oklahoma.

Oklahoma’s Taylor McNamara announced his intention to join the Trojans as a graduate transfer in March. Having already completed his degree, the former Sooner would be eligible to play immediately.

The Trojans also landed Daniel Imatorbhebhe —the brother of USC commit and eventual signee, Josh Imatorbhebhe— as a transfer from Florida. He was an early enrollee in the Gator’s 2015 recruiting class and would have to sit out a season due to NCAA transfer rules.

Despite the positive additions, the USC tight ends picture remained less-than-ideal.

When the Trojans started fall camp in August, 2015 the tight end group included three scholarship players: McNamara, Petite and Imatorbhebhe. The last of whom could not actually play for USC until 2016.

Walk-ons at the position included the co-starter Spears, former Trojan center Cyrus Hobbi —40 pounds lighter following his retirement a year earlier— and true freshman Caleb Wilson, the son of defensive line coach Chris Wilson.

The unit had a combined total of one career catch between them: McNamara’s only snag at Oklahoma. His 10 appearances for the Sooners barely outpaced Hobbi’s nine for USC…at center.

Harry How/Getty Images
Harry How/Getty Images /

For Petite, the lack of experience was glaring.

“We first got there and T-Mac [McNamara] had game experience and that was it,” Petite said. “We had Connor who had been here, but he really hadn’t been in any games. I was coming in as a freshman, [and] hadn’t had any sort of game experience in college.

“Daniel, even though he was sitting out, had no experience. Not just experience on the game field, but at practice. We hadn’t even been through our first practice yet. We were just an extremely young group and we had a lot of growing to do.”

Most players come into a position room and have veterans to look up to and lean on as they ease into the college game. Most transfers who arrive get integrated into a pre-existing unit culture. Not so for USC’s new tight ends.

As the elder statesmen, McNamara and Spears took on leadership roles, but Petite and Imatorbhebhe both said the group as a whole was able to establish their own culture from scratch. After all, they were all on even footing as new Trojans trying to settle in.

That created a camaraderie.

Forging their own way would have been enough of a hurdle for the tight end group in 2015, but other challenges were in store for USC as a whole, and the tight ends as individuals.

A month into the season, Sarkisian was removed from his post as head coach and offensive coordinator Clay Helton was promoted to interim head coach, sending the Trojans down a tumultuously familiar path.

Meanwhile, the 235-pound Petite was struggling to put on weight. Though he thrived as a receiving option, leading all of USC’s tight ends with 15 catches for 145 yards on the season, he couldn’t reach his ideal playing weight between 250 and 260 pounds. His ability to become a complete tight end was greatly limited.

Harry How/Getty Images
Harry How/Getty Images /

Turns out, he had sleep apnea, a disorder in which a person’s breathing is interrupted while they sleep, depriving their brain of oxygen.

“I was sick my whole freshman year because my body just couldn’t recover,” Petite said. “And then I finally figured that out, got everything checked out and found a solution. I put on 15 pounds right away.”

All things considered, the 2015 USC tight ends averted the disaster hinted at in the media guide.

McNamara had established himself as a dependable figure, and Petite pitched in as a passing target. Meanwhile, Imatorbhebhe waited for his turn to shine.

The then-freshman had his own growing to do first.

When he enrolled at Florida, Imatorbhebhe was even slimmer than Petite, weighing under 215 pounds. It was a rude awakening to go up against Gator defensive backs like the 216-pound Keanu Neil and 209-pound Quincy Wilson, or even a smaller, but physical cornerback like Vernon Hargreaves III.

“That wasn’t fun,” he said. “I was light. I was lanky.”

The redshirt year at USC had its effect. By 2016, Imatorbhebhe stepped on to the field for the first time in cardinal and gold listed at 240 pounds.

“I feel like I got a lot bigger, faster, stronger, more explosive,” he said.

Still, success for Imatorbhebhe came incrementally.

He made his first career catch in Week 2 against Utah State and started for the first time a week later at Stanford. However, his impact as a pass catcher was limited.

Imatorbhebhe’s second career catch and first college touchdown did not come until Week 6, when the Trojans hosted Colorado. The same game in which Petite also accounted for two scores.

Burgeoning chemistry with quarterback Sam Darnold ensured that Imatorbhebhe’s role would only increase, culminating in early November with a five-catch, 78-yard performance in USC’s 26-13 upset of Washington.

Photo by Harry How/Getty Images
Photo by Harry How/Getty Images /

The tight end’s back-to-back catches of 21 and 22 yards in the second quarter set up a short Ronald Jones touchdown run to give the Trojans a commanding 17-6 lead. His fourth quarter touchdown helped seal the victory.

“It was a fun game. I’m going to remember it for a long time,” Imatorbhebhe said the week after the win.

But the USC tight ends were pivotal in another unforgettable, last season: the 2017 Rose Bowl.

Imatorbhebehe moved the chains with a 12-yard catch on the Trojans’ game-tying touchdown drive in the final two minutes against Penn State. McNamara helped set the stage a quarter earlier, catching Darnold’s two-point conversion throw to put the Trojans back within a touchdown.

That small but critical contribution was a fitting end for McNamara’s Trojan career. In two years as a starter, he often flew under the radar. His best plays wouldn’t make the yearly highlight reel, but he was one of the cogs that kept USC’s offense running in 2015 and 2016.

READ MORE: How Graduate Transfers Like Taylor McNamara Helped Win USC the Rose Bowl

“Anything I’ve done this year, or Tyler has done this year, all goes back to [McNamara],” Imatorbhebhe said last year.

But it all really goes back to 2015, when two transfers and a true freshman were thrown together and expected to rebuild an entire position group.

“It was a grow up process that happened a lot faster than most college kids probably have it,” Petite said. “But it was great. I think what happened that year really prepared us for what is going on now.”

Now, the Trojan tight end group is a force to be reckoned with, one with the potential to go down in USC lore. Imatorbhebhe calls it a room full of “legitimate ballers.” Their offensive coordinator sees something special.

“That tight end group is the best I have ever been around, college and pro,” Tee Martin said.

Leading the way are Petite and Imatorbhebhe, no longer the new kids on the block.

“It’s definitely a weird feeling, because it’s like, where did all the time go? We still feel like we’re young guys,” Imatorbhebhe said. “But it’s been the coolest thing to go from being the guys that were learning from older guys like Taylor and Connor, to being the guys that are teaching.”

The duo is now responsible for shepherding the next generation of Trojan tight ends, and they don’t take that lightly.

During the spring, the two helped foster the growth of redshirt freshman Cary Angeline. This fall, Petite has attached himself to freshman Erik Krommenhoek, while Imatorbhebhe guides newbie Josh Falo.

Angeline is a 6-foot-7 “freak of nature,” who Imatorbhebhe contends could leave USC as the greatest Trojan tight end of them all.

Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy
Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy /

Krommenhoek’s high football IQ and strength set the three-star prospect apart, while Falo is the “gifted athlete” capable of wowing his teammates.

“I’m already starting to pray for the opponents that have to face them because I wouldn’t want to do it. Those guys are going to be great,” Imatorbhebhe said.

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Whatever they achieve, those three will be products of the foundation USC laid in 2015.

The end game is to create a legacy bridging the gap between the great tight ends of the past and this tight end renaissance.

“We’re really now just putting an exclamation point on what we want it to be like in [the tight end room]. So when the day comes that we pass off the room to Cary and Erik and Josh, it just stays the same,” Imatorbhebhe said. “Guys will go out there and try to do the best for their team and just ball out when their number’s called.”

As bright as the future looks for USC’s tight ends, the present carries it’s own promise.

Imatorbhebhe is on the 2017 Mackey Award watch list as one of the nation’s premiere tight ends.

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“I used to play NCAA and my tight end would win the Mackey, so my name being on that is kind of surreal,” he said.

Winning it would be even more surreal.

Next to him, Petite has worked hard this offseason to elevate his own game. Finally at his goal weight of 260, the junior has felt a difference this summer.

“It was the first time I wasn’t sick or hurt,” he said. “It was just full go in the weight room, out running, everything and it just all clicked”

The name-recognition may not be there for Petite, but the talent is, making he and Imatorbhebhe arguably the best tight end duo in the country.

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If nothing else, USC’s tight ends are now among the surest things on the roster. Petite can’t help but revel in that.

“The funny part is, I’m going into my junior season and I’m one of the oldest guys on the offense, experience-wise,” he said. “We’re pretty much one of the older groups and more experienced out of all the groups.

“So, for our group, I have the highest of expectations.”

What a difference two years can make.