USC Football has work to do getting wide receiver corps ready for season

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

USC Football’s wide receiver corps is not where it needs to be as the 2017 season approaches, according to head coach Clay Helton.

Finding a way to replace the production of playmakers like JuJu Smith-Schuster and Darreus Rogers with a rebuilt wide receiving corps was among the most critical tasks for USC Football this offseason. With two weeks until the season opener against Western Michigan, that task remains.

“We’ve still got work to do,” head coach Clay Helton said Tuesday after the Trojans finished up a practice which demonstrated the tenuous chemistry between quarterback and wide receivers. “I don’t think we’re anywhere near a finished product.”

Tuesdays usually involve snags with the installation of a new game plan. Helton said he expects his blood pressure to rise on those days.

Still, the Trojans have had three weeks of practice under their belt and the options at wide receiver still don’t exactly jump out like Smith-Schuster and Rogers.

“I don’t think we’re anywhere near a finished product.”

Deontay Burnett may be the exception. His chemistry with Sam Darnold has not been in question since his spectacular showing in the 2017 Rose Bowl. On Tuesday, he put more of that connection on display, making a diving reception in the endzone on a 35-yard ball from Darnold. Later, he snagged two deep bombs from the quarterback.

Nor is it that USC lacks reliable options. Redshirt senior Steven Mitchell has locked in a claim to first team reps on the outside while redshirt junior Jalen Greene opposite him has maintained a starting place all offseason.

However, neither Mitchell nor Greene have shown the flash necessary to replace a Smith-Schuster-type target.

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Redshirt freshman Tyler Vaughns could be that guy. He has been one of USC’s more consistent playmakers throughout camp.

Helton acknowledged those four receivers for playing good football. The trouble is, the Trojans want six in that conversation.

“We have depth, but it’s also about guys that can function and produce,” Helton said. “We’re a huge three-wide team, and when we’re functioning at our best, we have two groups of guys that can go out there and when one raises his hand, the other one goes.”

Over the course of the next two weeks, Helton’s eyes will turn to the rest of the receiving corps where a viable rotation must form.

“I’m hoping to see some other guys raise their level,” Helton said.

Before his high ankle sprain, Michael Pittman would have been a prime candidate to fill one of those rotation spots, but the sophomore could miss the start of the season because of that injury.

Redshirt freshman Josh Imatorbhebhe could be in line to benefit most from Pittman’s absence. Helton has noted the quality of his practice performances more than once over the past week.

Others with the opportunity to make some waves during the final weeks of the offseason include redshirt freshman Velus Jones, who was a star of spring camp, redshirt freshman Trevon Sidney, who has become more involved in recent practices, and sophomore cornerback-receiver Keyshawn “Pie” Young, who returned on Tuesday after missing extended time with a hamstring injury.

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Then there’s the true freshmen, Joseph Lewis and Randal Grimes, who could grab early playing time if they make the most of the next two weeks.

But they’re not there yet.

“We’ve got some work to do to get there, but I know that we’ll be ready by the first game,” Helton said. “Tee [Martin] will have them ready.”

With a unit so full of sophomores, redshirt freshmen and true freshmen, the delay in solidifying the contributors isn’t entirely unexpected. Nor will any slip ups shock the coaches when the Trojans do take the field in September with more than a few first- and second-year players occupying major roles in the passing game.

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“They’re going to go through some growing pains,” Helton said. “The good thing is we have some veterans behind them to help them and to pick them up and that’s what we’re going to have to count on. Hopefully they make more good plays than bad.”