Perhaps the most noticeable, stark difference around the USC practice field this spring is watching the wide receivers and not seeing Amon-Ra St. Brown or Tyler Vaughns out there leading the way.
Two fixtures of the passing attack the last three seasons, both are now off to the NFL and as wide receivers coach Keary Colbert put it Tuesday morning, the Trojans’ task now is to create a new identity at the position.
“I just think obviously there’s a standard in the room that’s very high. I think the guys are up to the challenge and upholding the standard and raising the bar, honestly,” Colbert said. “… It’s different. But honestly, I think at the start of each season, each team is going to be different. That’s the great thing about football and about sports. You create new identities each year. You kind of gel the pieces you have in the room together and at the end of the day, you see how it fits. Of course, losing those two guys, a bunch of experience and play history. But I’m excited for the guys in the room. Some of the guys in the room have different skill sets. I look forward to them raising that bar, that standard, then honestly just putting their stamp on a season and on their room.
“It’s their room now. That’s every season, when you lose guys. We just have to establish our identity as a wide receiver room.”
The Trojans aren’t starting from scratch, of course. Drake London led USC with 502 receiving yards over the six-game 2020 season, but he’s getting a long look on the outside now after making his name in the slot the last two years.
Redshirt sophomore Bru McCoy got on the field a good bit last year, totaling 21 catches for 236 yards and 2 touchdowns while rotating in behind Vaughns on the outside. The former 5-star prospect would seem a prime candidate for a true breakout in 2021 in a full-time role.
But the rest really is up for grabs — no pun intended — with a combined 74 catches, 884 yards and 10 touchdowns (over just six games) gone from the position group.
Colbert gave his early impressions on some of the other candidates to step into notable roles his year and help replace that lost production.
Sophomore Gary Bryant Jr., the Trojans’ highest-ranked recruit in the 2020 class, caught 7 passes for 51 yards off the bench last season, and he too is a breakout candidate. The coaching staff has confidence in using the speedy playmaker both on the outside or in the slot.
“Honestly, I just want to see him compete and play fast and play well within the offense. I think he had a great week last week. We joked about it, he and I, because we were looking at Day 1 of last spring compared to where he is now. It’s night and day,” Colbert said. “He was a great player coming in, but just, any freshman there’s a slight transition from learning the plays to playing fast to having that confidence. We literally joked about it. He has a confidence within the offense right now. He knows what he’s doing and what’s expected of him. He’s out there just ready to play and compete and make plays. … I’m excited about him this spring and this season.”
Veteran K.D. Nixon transferred in this offseason after totaling 102 catches for 1,233 yards and 7 TDs over the last three seasons at Colorado. At 5-foot-8, 190 pounds, he is a prototypical slot weapon.
“He adds a bunch of experience. Obviously playing at the University of Colorado, played there, had a bunch of catches, touchdowns. He’s an older guy. He’s the vet in the room. Aside from just his playing experience, he brings an energy. He brings a very positive [energy] — everybody loves him on the team and in the room,” Colbert said. “He’s a vet, man. He’s a pro. I’ve been in the NFL, and when they say guys are vets or pros or stuff like that, K.D. is that version for college football. He’s taking notes in meetings. He’ll do whatever he has to do for the team. He’s motivating guys. He’s pushing guys. But at the same time, he’s out there to do a job and compete and make plays and to help the team win in any fashion.”
Freshman Michael Jackson III — the only one of USC’s three 2021 WR signees who enrolled early for the spring — has flashed his elite athleticism so far. He has a tantalizing blend of ball skills in the air, spatial awareness and body control to get himself open downfield, great hands and the speed to create yards after the catch.
“Not a surprise at all. Obviously he was an early commit for us. Getting to know him and his family over the process, you learn about him. He came to camp and for a couple years he was the fastest man in camp when he came. He competed then. He competes now,” Colbert said. “He didn’t get to play a season last year, and I got to communicate with him all year. And literally every time I talked to him, he was either doing school or at his gym working out. It doesn’t surprise me because I know what type of young man he is. It’s just good to see in person, to finally work with him. Obviously, I’m excited about the opportunity to help him grow as a player and a young man. But again, he did a great job thus far, especially Week 1 of spring ball. I’m excited what’s ahead for his career.”
Junior John Jackson III has been getting significant reps in the slot this spring but has just 1 catch through two years, redshirt sophomore Kyle Ford is a bit of a wild card while still easing his way back from a second ACL surgery while missing most of the last two seasons, 4-star freshman Kyron Ware-Hudson and 3-star Joseph Manjack arrive in the summer, and Munir McClain remains suspended.
Of that long list, the only guys that were active the first week of spring ball were London, Bryant, Nixon, Jackson and Jackson. McCoy should return at some point — a bunch of USC projected starters were not in attendance last week as coach Clay Helton vaguely referred to players working through health protocols. One can read between the lines on that.
But that’s meant more reps and opportunity for the guys who are out there.
“There are a lot of guys that are competing for spots. I’m excited for these guys to have their time. I think we had a great week of practice last week, and we have to put another one together this week. We’ll take it from there,” Colbert said. “… You have a bunch of spots open. It’s easier to move guys around a little bit, as opposed to the past when those guys– Tyler was Z and Pittman was X and Amon-Ra played inside and outside a little for us. Now that it’s so open, we felt it was best to just kind of mix and match and really see where, again, the identity of this receiver room can be at its best. The only way to figure that out is to move the pieces around and let them go put it on tape. At the end of the day, we’ll present it in September.”
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