30 Key Trojans: #22 Connor Spears/Tight Ends

No position has been quite as tumultuous since last season as the tight end spot. The last five years saw three main guys (Rhett Ellison, Xavier Grimble, Randall Telfer) at the position. This season, five guys will compete and none of them played for USC last year.

There are just 44 days left before the USC football team runs through the tunnel with the Thundering Herd cheering them on loud and proud. The Trojans will then match up with Arkansas State, a team formerly coached by now-Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn, who recently said the Pac-12 South teams should “come over” though we know that Malzahn would prefer that not actually happen since he thinks the SEC’s tough schedule is putting teams at a disadvantage in the College Football Playoff because teams are too worn down.

While we’ll have to wait another week to see if any of the Pac-12 South coaches have a retort for Malzahn, the Trojan players continue to put in the hard offseason work in team runs and player-run practices. We also continue to grind away at the countdown of the “30 Key Trojans” for the 2015 season.

This countdown features the 30 USC players most important to the Trojans’ success this season. This list is not the 30 most talented players or the 30 players that will put up the best stats, but instead the guys that could propel USC to a successful season.

Which players’ success is key for the Trojans’ season to be a success?

22. Connor Spears - Redshirt Sophomore

OR

22. Taylor McNamara - Redshirt Junior

OR

22. Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick - Redshirt Junior

OR

22. Tyler Petite - Freshman

This is the only “OR” on our countdown of the 30 Key Trojans. We wanted to avoid any either/or situations, but we understand that the tight end is going to be an important position for USC this season and it’s a position without any clarity.

In December at the end of last season, things seemed simple. Though the Trojans were losing Randall Telfer, Bryce Dixon was returning after a strong freshman campaign that saw him catch four touchdowns. Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick would be back after being academically ineligible last year. And the Trojans had flipped Moraga (Calif.) Campolindo four-star tight end Tyler Petite. There was also the possibility of Chris Willson trying to gain a sixth-year of eligibility with a medical redshirt after being injured in the season opener.

My how things have changed.

Dixon is no longer with the program. Willson decided he wanted to play quarterback and left USC. Cope-Fitzpatrick has been a relative enigma after taking the second-team reps during the spring and rarely being seen during the summer workout months.

Those are the departures and a glaring question mark, but there have been positive developments as well. The position has become transfer central.

Connor Spears, a walk-on who transferred from Columbia last season, has been an absolute revelation. He’s the reason that Cope-Fitzpatrick was relegated to backup duties in the spring. While the coaches wanted Cope-Fitzpatrick to earn a spot atop the depth chart rather than have it handed to him, Spears played too well for that to materialize in the spring.

Former San Diego (Calif.) Westview three-star tight end Taylor McNamara announced in March that he was transferring to USC from Oklahoma. The 6-foot-5, 238-pound McNamara will come in as a blueshirt, earning a scholarship on the second day of training camp, but will be immediately eligible due to the graduate transfer rule after he earned his undergraduate degree while playing for the Sooners.

While McNamara has played in 11 career games over three seasons (his freshman year he received a medical redshirt after a shoulder injury ended his season after two games), he only has one reception for four yards. What he’ll bring to the table is still a bit of a mystery since he’s yet to be on campus for a summer throwing session.

The third transfer that should be practicing with the Trojans once fall camp opens on Aug. 8 will be Daniel Imatorbhebhe. The older brother of 2016 wide receiver commit Josh Imatorbhebhe, Daniel initially chose to attend Florida, enrolling early in January and participating with the Gators in spring ball, but he made the decision to leave the program in May.

In June, he announced he had received a scholarship offer from USC and would be joining the program in the fall. Daniel will have to sit out a year due to the NCAA’s undergraduate transfer rules and is expected to be a blueshirt scholarship player, but he will be able to practice with the team and push the starters and the defense.

Tyler Petite just recently arrived on campus and has looked like another version of Dixon with good size, speed and catch ability. He’ll likely take a little time to get up to speed, especially with run blocking, but he’s going to be hard to keep off the field this season with his pass catching ability giving him a unique opportunity when matched up with linebackers.

Then there is also walk-on Caleb Wilson, son of defensive line coach Chris Wilson. He doesn’t look like your typical walk-on. Wilson turned down a scholarship to play quarterback at Old Dominion and hasn't spent much time at the tight end position. But he’s another matchup nightmare waiting to happen.

Combined with Spears, the Trojans suddenly have a pair of walk-on tight ends that could eventually earn playing time and push a position of need into a position of greed — with up to five tight ends competing for opportunities after there were only two bodies at the position in the spring.

With potentially five guys vying for playing time, we expect that the tight end position will be super competitive, pushing each other to get better each day. The three tight ends that have been at summer throwing sessions in July — Spears, Petite, Wilson — are also three of the guys that stay the latest each practice, catching extra balls on the Juggs machine and running extra routes to work on timing and precise breaks.

SEASON GOALS:

“As far as me personally, just be able to contribute any way I can, whether it’s blocking or running some routes. I just want to create depth and be an asset to the team.” — Connor Spears

“I want to come in and contribute. Really, that’s my goal, to be on the field, helping the team out. Help us win some games. It’s a lot more fun when you’re a part of the success. That’s just my goal whatever part that is.” — Taylor McNamara

“I’m still working on a lot of things. I really haven’t been playing football like everybody else has, but I’ve been feeling good out there. My body is finally catching up to my brain and I feel like I’m starting to make plays out there.” — Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick, after a spring practice in March

EXPERTS TAKE:

“For those who worried that USC might kick off with hardly anyone to answer the bell at tight end in late spring, there are now a number of choices -- with size, speed, experience, youth, talent, pass-catching ability and a willingness to work. This may just work out.

"Even if it's not at all the way it looked to start the spring, USC has a chance here. That's all you can ask." — Dan Weber, USCfootball.com

RankPlayerTotal PointsHighLow
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22Connor Spears44 pts13 (Austin Geller)Not listed (Twice)
23Max Browne43 pts19 (Twice)Not listed (Shotgun Spratling)
24Leon McQuay III40 pts17 (Ryan Abraham)Not listed (Twice)
25Osa Masina39 pts15 (Gerard Martinez)Not listed (Keely Eure)
26Darreus Rogers36 pts19 (Shotgun Spratling)Not listed (Dan Weber)
27Matt Boermeester35 pts18 (Dan Weber)Not listed (Twice)
28Chris Hawkins34 pts21 (Twice)Not listed (Twice)
29Viane Talamaivao23 pts22 (Keely Eure)Not listed (Three times)
30Ykili Ross21 pts22 (Austin Geller)Not listed (Twice)

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