Tight Ends to Sink or Swim Saturday

USC tight ends coach Justin Mesa has had a lot to deal with this fall. His veteran player changed positions and then stockpiling injuries halted his group's progress. Saturday will be a tall test for Mesa and his two co-starters in Xavier Grimble and Randall Telfer, both who have never played a college down.

Remember when you first learned to swim? Floaties were a godsend. If mom was a worrier, you coupled the floaties with a lifevest. That gear gave you confidence. And that confidence helped you learn how to swim.

USC tight ends coach Justin Mesa doesn't have floaties or a life vest entering into Saturday's game against Minnesota.

He has three redshirt freshmen.

Xavier Grimble, Randall Telfer and Michael Cox have never before played a college down. It's been almost 20 months since their senior season in high school, 20 months since the three have played a significant game of football. Yet despite this lack of game experience, Grimble and Telfer are set to see the majority of snaps in the Trojans' season home opener Saturday.

"[Redshirting] gave us a chance to mature and just grow up as a player and I really started to take myself a lot more seriously and develop and just do all the things coaches ask of us," Grimble said.

Mesa could have considered Christian Thomas a reliable weapon. But the sophomore suffered a hip injury during fall camp that kept him out of valuable repetitions. He's still listed equal to Grimble and Telfer on the depth chart, but he likely won't play in the season opener. If he regains full strength, Thomas could end up being a contributor later in the season.

And while Cox is a walk-on, Grimble and Telfer come in highly recruited, with little separating the two from the field at this point. Telfer (6-4, 240) is, however, more detail-oriented, quick to catch the nuances of the game and Grimble (6-5, 250) is more athletic and a better blocker.

"I was a humble kid coming in. I did want to play, but for me to sit back, I'm actually glad," Grimble said. "I'm really really glad that I redshirted because I got to develop a lot so I could start my career on a better path. I'm way more developed."

Mesa, Kiffin and the rest of the Trojan clan are relying on that development to speed up the young players' progress. The only veteran at the tight end position is Rhett Ellison, who made a transition to fullback during camp. Yet Ellison's leadership is still vital to the success of his former group.

"Even though he's at fullback right now he's still like the tight end leader, he still tells us everything, helps us in every way he can," Grimble said. "He's always there when we need him, we can go in and watch film with him, just learn from him. He does everything right."

True freshman Junior Pomee did a lot right too, showing flashes of brilliance at one of USC's preseason scrimmages. Unfortunately Pomee suffered a season-ending foot injury that same day.

"Definitely depth is an issue but during practice I try to do a good enough job to spare those guys and stuff that they don't really need to waste their legs on," Mesa said.

The tight end position was looking so scarce Mesa enjoined two defensive players in linebacker Ross Cumming and defensive tackle Zach Kusnir to make the move over to offense. Kusnir lasted a few days before returning to his old role. But Cumming stuck. And in a short time, the senior has earned his peers' respect.

"Bringing Ross over we didn't really think about it. We looked at the depth chart and he's a late kind of add to bringing him over. But I was real comfortable and confident in him just because he's a football player and he understands the game and the physicality and he plays the mentality that's physical and aggressive.

"I just want to make it known that Ross didn't come over for legs and he's a viable option and there's a couple of plays for him in the gameplan already," Mesa said.

With three redshirt freshmen and one senior who is a freshman on offense, there are many viable options for the Trojans at tight end. What remains to be seen is whether they turn out to be any good.

"If people are sleeping on us then it's going to be bad for them on Saturday I think. We're really young but we're very talented. We're always hungry, always learning and we're only going to get better from here," Grimble said. "The best is yet to come."

With little game experience among the position, it looks like Saturday's home opener will be a lot of trial and error. Mesa might need to pull out that life vest, because his young players are about to sink or swim.

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