USC football spring preview: Wide receivers ready for Air Raid

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

USC football’s receiving corps is thin but mighty. Spring Camp 2019 will be all about getting more out of the talent available in the passing game.

Five Biggest Battles. SPRING CAMP

No unit figures to benefit more from the installation of the Air Raid offense this Spring Camp than USC football’s wide receiving corps.

The Trojans return all four leading receivers from 2018, those will look to get fully integrated in Graham Harrell’s offense while avoiding any setbacks this offseason.

Others will be looking to take advantage of thin depth to establish clear roles before the arrival of freshman reinforcements in the fall.

Roster Rundown

Departing (3):Randal Grimes, Josh Imatorbhebhe, Trevon Sidney

Returning (6):*Michael Pittman (Sr.)*Velus Jones Jr. (RS-Jr.)*Tyler Vaughns (RS-Jr.)Keyshawn “Pie” Young (RS-Jr.)Amon-Ra St. Brown (So.)Devon Williams (So.)

Spring Enrollees (1):John Jackson III (Fr.)

Fall Enrollees (3):Kyle Ford (Fr.)Drake London (Fr.)Munir McClain (Fr.)

*Returning starters

USC was set to return every scholarship player at wide receiver in 2019, but transfer decisions have thinned out the unit instead.

Randal Grimes, Josh Imatorbhehe and Trevon Sidney each decided to seek their fortunes elsewhere after the conclusion of the 2018 season. That has hurt depth greatly, though the trio combined for seven catches, so the losses are not devastating at this point.

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Critically, USC is bringing back every major figure from last year’s passing attack.

Leading receiver Michael Pittman opted to forego early entry to the NFL for a final season with the Trojans. Fellow starter Tyler Vaughns, who tied Pittman with six touchdowns last season, is also returning in the hopes of fulfilling his exceptional talent.

Though Pittman and Vaughns had their moments in 2018, it’s clear both can reach greater heights. A spring learning the Air Raid is their first step towards that goal.

Devon Williams had a few bright moments in his freshman campaign and will once again serve as an understudy to Pittman and Vaughns. While Grimes and Imatorbhebhe might have battled him for playing time in 2019, he now has a clear path to the field so long as he puts in the work to continue sharpening his game this offseason.

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If there’s a question around the unit, it’s in the slot. Amon-Ra St. Brown worked both inside and outside during his freshman campaign, when he led the Trojans in receptions. There is no doubt St. Brown will remain a huge part of the passing offense, but Harrell and receivers coach Keary Colbert will have to decide if St. Brown will continue doing double-duty or stick solely to the slot.

The resolution of that question will impact Velus Jones Jr., who will be looking to establish himself as USC’s fourth-option while increasing his touches as a redshirt junior.

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As for Keyshawn “Pie” Young, he may have an opportunity to climb the ladder under a new receivers coach, but it is hard to see where he fits in with so many established options returning. All of that is if he doesn’t follow in the footsteps of Grimes, Imatorbhebhe and Sidney in transferring.

UPDATE: John Jackson III, a three-star prospect out of Serra in 2018 and the son of Trojan great John Jackson, tweeted a picture working out with the team ahead of Spring Camp.

He was expected to gray shirt in 2018, but it wasn’t clear if he would join USC this spring or fall. It now looks like he is on track to participate in camp. He will add some much needed depth to the position while trying to follow in the footsteps of Deontay Burnett, another less heralded, but gifted receiver from Serra.

Biggest Battle

There simply aren’t enough players to name a man-on-man battle. If the Trojans plan to go four-wide, they will have at most six scholarship players to fill those slots, until Fall Camp at least, when Kyle Ford, Drake London and Munir McClain arrive.

In that sense, the big battle in the receiving corps revolves around Williams. He may as well be battling with the specter of the trio of freshmen who will be gunning for his playing time this fall.

Player to Watch

Four freshman pass catchers have led USC in receptions this century—Mike Williams, Dwayne Jarrett, Robert Woods and Amon-Ra St. Brown. As St. Brown enters his sophomore campaign, here’s a tantalizing tidbit: the other three went on to have All-American seasons in Year 2.

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That’s why St. Brown is the player to watch this spring. He is on the cusp of greatness, and it has to start on the practice field.