If you are a wide receiver, you are used to competition. No team has only three or four receivers. Most college programs have double-digit wideouts and while there may be a pecking order, there is always competition raging back and forth.
Wide receivers are known as the divas. The top tier receivers want the ball and think the ball needs to be in their hands in order for the team to succeed. Well, so does the second guy and the third guy and the fourth guy. You’ll typically here more complaints about playing time or targets from a receiver than you will any other position in sports, unless maybe it’s Kobe Bryant.
Good receivers are natural competitors. You have to compete for your spot on the depth chart. You have to compete for the quarterback’s attention. You have to compete for the ball once it is in the air. A defender only has to knock the ball to the ground. A running back is handed the ball. Receivers have to be go-getters. Go get the ball. And that’s exactly what the USC receivers have done through the first week of practice.
After losing first rounder Nelson Agholor to the NFL and Ajene Harris for the season due to hip surgery, the Trojans only have three returning scholarship receivers. The trio of JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steven Mitchell Jr. and Darreus Rogers are sitting atop the depth chart, but have a handful of guys nipping at their heels trying to steal away some playing time.
De’Quan Hampton has stood out with his physicality and strong hands. Deontay Burnett (at left) still hasn’t officially been awarded a scholarship, but catches pretty much everything thrown his way. Isaac Whitney has shown flashes of the speed and size combo that could make him a deep ball threat on the outside while transitioning quarterback Jalen Greene looks like very natural with soft hands at the receiver position despite not having played since middle school.
“It’s good to have that competition and depth,” USC receivers coach Tee Martin said. “It’s really good for us to have depth to where we can go two or three deep and have quality players get quality reps. Not only is it good for us, but we’re giving our defense quality looks because there’s not as much of a dropoff as there was in the past when we didn’t have the numbers that we have now.”
But the top three receivers aren’t trying to hold onto their starting roles and just keep the newcomers to the position at bay. There is an active battle amongst the top triumvirate to assume the lead role vacated by Agholor who filled it for Marqise Lee who followed Robert Woods who came after Ronald Johnson and so forth.
“Receiver U. Always,” Rogers said. “We’re always trying to take that role. JuJu had a great season last year, so he’s on the top, but we told him, 'Me and Steve coming,’ But it’s all jokes, all fun. That’s our boy. One thing about JuJu is that he wants us to be better than him, so that makes him great.”
Though there is active competition going on between them, you will also see a ton of encouragement and assistance between the receivers. Smith-Schuster and Rogers are quick to point out a tip or tidbit to each other or one of the other wideouts.
“I learn things from him. I ask him questions,” Rogers said. “He asks me questions, so we’re all just one man. We just click man. We’re trying to do big things this year, so we’re trying to be as close as possible.”
Some of the best battles day in and day out of the first week of practice definitely have taken place on the outside. Smith-Schuster, Mitchell Jr. and Rogers going up against the defensive back trio of Kevon Seymour, Chris Hawkins and Adoree' Jackson has presented high-level viewing on a daily basis. Going against the same guy for the majority of the reps every day means there is no off day.
“That’s one thing that we talk about in recruiting. You come here to go against the best on the other side of the ball,” Martin said. “Whether you are a wide receiver or a corner, you’re going to go against the best guys in the conference everyday in and out. That’s why you come here. That’s what we expect. We want that competition.”
And the best part is that it has been back and forth. Smith-Schuster may absolutely own Seymour on one day like he did on Tuesday, but Seymour has done a terrific job keeping the explosive Smith-Schuster relatively quiet otherwise. Smith-Schuster hasn’t been able to use his size advantage because Seymour has done a great job of locking up an arm before Smith-Schuster can try to explode up for a ball or utilizing a chicken wing to keep him off-balance while the ball is in the air.
Mitchell Jr. was the star of the spring with no one being able to stop him, but he didn’t have a breakout day until Wednesday because Hawkins hasn’t allowed him to get deep for anything, forcing him to settle for shorter routes or to wait for the ball in soft spots of the zone and then try to use his playmaking ability.
“It’s back and forth, back and forth,” Mitchell Jr. said. “Me and CHawk have been going at it since high school. It’s a great competitive mentality that we have. We’re going to keep on from this year, next year and the following years on out.”
Each of the matchups are forcing both players to learn how to battle against different styles, body types and abilities. Seymour doesn’t let Smith-Schuster overmatch him with his raw athletic ability. By playing over the top on most reps, Hawkins forces Mitchell Jr. to use more than straight-line speed.
But the best matchup of the fall so far may be Rogers and Jackson. Everyone understands that Jackson is the most dynamic playmaker on the team and yet he has been held without one of his trademark ‘Wow!’ moments thus far. Rogers, on the other hand, has stood out as a highlight waiting to happen.
Along with some of the one-handed grabs we’ve highlights in our “Fall Camp Five” series and in the “Ghost Notes,” Rogers has done a tremendous job of catching the ball away from his body, often times with Jackson draped all over his back like a Trojan cape floating in the wind (as seen on the left). He has also been much more active using his body to shield away the smaller Jackson.
“When we used to go against each other, it used to be back and forth, but now I have to use my technique,” Jackson said. “He has to use his technique to get me off-balance. So it’s us going back and forth using our brains and not just our physical attributes.”
“He’s making me better. I’m working on my technique because he has great releases off the line and then him being a big receiver, I have to work on and figure out how to make plays on the ball and that’s one of the things I wanted to do this year is make plays on the ball.”
That Rogers is matched up with Jackson on a daily basis right now is no coincidence.
“I wanted to put him on that side so he saw Adoree’ every day,” Martin said. “We’re going to move the guys around, but I wanted to start camp with him to understand that it’s going to be an everyday thing.
“Darreus is going to help us a lot this year. This is going to be a breakout year for Darreus. I want him to have that mentality coming into training camp that it’s going to be everyday, over and over again throughout the rest of the season.”