While coaches often talk about there being an open competition at positions leading up to games, it’s often more of a motivational ploy to get starters to play harder in practice and not become complacent.
That’s not the case for USC wide receivers coach Tee Martin. He doesn’t have a set rotation. He knows that Juju Smith-Schuster, who has scored eight touchdowns and is fifth in the nation with 128.7 yards per game, is going to start on the outside and he’s going to fill in the rest of the holes as he goes. So how does he determine who is going to play?
“Whatever it’s going to take for us to win the game. That’s pretty much it,” Martin said. “And how the guys practice during the week. It’s an open competition every week. Our guys understand that you’ve got to earn your position every week. With that mentality, everybody stays ready to go.”
Rather than it being mere lip service, Martin means it when he says what happens during the practice week matters.
“It boosts the morale in our room because everybody came here to play and everybody can play,” Martin said. “With the way that we rotate, everybody is going to play. They all know that. Everybody expects to play and everybody expects to get the ball.”
“Once you get to that level of being trusted and being responsible and doing what we asked them to do, I don’t have a problem playing all of our guys. You look out there and Robby Kolanz, a walk-on, is out there playing in the Utah game, the Notre Dame game. He got a catch against Notre Dame, so it doesn’t matter to me about it.
“It’s just a matter of you just doing the job. These guys are all focused in meetings. They’re focused at practice. They all get reps and I’m not ashamed to play any one of them.”
Eighteen Trojans have receptions this season, including 11 receivers. Martin has played 13 different receivers this season, including walk-ons, but the position has become a revolving door opposite of Smith-Schuster in the last couple of weeks with Darreus Rogers (hamstring) and Steven Mitchell Jr. (ankle) being banged up. Isaac Whitney got the first shot on the outside in the Washington game only to be lost for likely the remainder of the regular season with a broken collarbone — the same injury that also took out speedy slot receiver Christian Tober earlier in the month.
A week after playing only one snap, Jalen Greene got the lion’s share of the outside receiver snaps against Notre Dame with 54 in the game while De’Quan Hampton saw just 12. Those roles were flipped against Utah. Hampton started and saw a career-high 54 snaps while Greene was the backup getting 23 fewer snaps than he had the week before.
Martin said that Hampton brings size, speed and a physicality on the outsides.
“He made a big play in the red zone, big catch. But his blocking on the perimeter was incredible,” Martin said. “He’s starting to come into his own. He’s shown flashes of it. Obviously, he’s extremely talented. He’s the biggest receiver that we have and now he’s feeling himself out to where he’s playing with confidence and feels like he can win man-to-man battles.”
In the slot receiver position, Adoree Jackson was used almost exclusively on offense against Utah after playing high-volume reps on both sides against Washington and Notre Dame. With Jackson needing rest against Notre Dame, Tober out and Greene playing outside, freshman Deontay Burnett had to step up and he ingratiated himself nicely, catching three passes for 53 yards.
Burnett, who spent nearly 20 minutes after Wednesday's practice picking the brain of Trojan receiver legend Keyshawn Johnson, played 22 snaps against the Irish, but then only saw the field for two plays against Utah. Not only was USC using Jackson on offense, but the Trojans chose to try to pound the ball, particularly in the second half. None of the Trojans’ final 20 plays on offense featured more than two receivers on the field. Instead, for the entire fourth quarter, USC used two-receivers sets.
That meant Jackson got a relatively light load, playing 39 offensive snaps and two on defense. It wasn’t something that thrilled him though. Jackson called his easier work load “not ideal” and not what he’d like.
“At the end of the day, it’s good on my body. I wasn’t out there doing too much,” he said. “I did get the ball on a couple of screens, so I just have to make something to work. If it works at the end of the day, it works, but that’s not what I would like.”
This week the rotations are likely to be vastly different once again. With Cal’s passing proficiency behind quarterback Jared Goff, Jackson is expected to spend more time on defense. He said he still expects to play on the offensive side, if it’s needed.
“It’s just one of those things where I always have a package every game offensively, it just depends on if I get in or not. That just goes off the gameplay, off the game flow.”
Jackson’s return to defense won’t be the only difference. Rogers was a full practice participant on Wednesday and is expected to play. Mitchell Jr. has done some individual drills this week, but his status remains questionable. If Mitchell is unable to go, expect to see Jackson and Burnett. Greene practiced in the slot for much of fall camp, so he could slide back inside, if needed. And the Trojans also have the option of putting freshman lightning bolt Dominic Davis at the spot.
Davis has been bouncing back and forth between running back and receiver recently and told USCfootball.com earlier this week that he was attending meetings with both position groups. Even though Davis hasn’t got as many reps as other receivers, Martin is confident he can step in, if needed.
“Dom is really smart. He understands concepts. That’s good. That already gives him a head start. He’s not coming out and not knowing what the total concept is. All he’s doing is now plugging himself into a different position, but he understands what it takes to make the play successful.
“He’s a smart dude and very, very talented with speed. We want him in space. He’s dangerous. We like being able to put him all over the place and let him make plays outside, inside and in the backfield, similar to Adoree’.
“Those guys, you let them get into space and you don’t tackle them, they can go a long way.”