USC’s tight end position is evolving and that could mean a bigger role than anticipated for redshirt freshman Daniel Imatorbhebhe.
Things are changing because of the extinction of another position. As the game of football continues to move towards more spread offenses that highlight and attack mismatches in space, getting a hat on a hat at the line of scrimmage is taking a backseat and the fullback position is disappearing.
USC has followed the trend.
Despite Jahleel Pinner and Soma Vainuku, the only two fullbacks listed on the roster, both graduating last season, the Trojans made no effort to recruit another fullback to fill the void. Instead, Clay Helton and the coaching staff plan to use more single-back offensive sets and use their tight ends as potential mismatches that can line up inside, outside or even in the backfield.
“I'm really excited about it right now,” Helton said after Tuesday’s opening spring practice. “If you remember a couple of years ago, when I first got here you had Stanley Havili, which was a guy that could separate and become a wideout. He was a wideout, all of sudden he was in the wing and he's in the backfield. Then you saw Rhett Ellison. Rhett Ellison did the same thing.”
Helton believes the threat of being able to move a big-bodied player around as either a blocker or a receiving target makes an offense more dangerous. USC can use traditional two tight end sets or line one of the Trojans’ three scholarship tight ends up in the backfield at the fullback position or use them in the “F-back” position.
“It causes you to be a greater threat and a little bit more questionable [to a defense] about what you're doing on offense,” Helton said, mentioning how Stanford’s various packages create confusion for defenses. “‘Gosh almighty, are they a two-back team or are they spreading out to empty?’ That's hard for defenses.”
Pinner excelled in the F-back spot last year, lining up a step back from the line of scrimmage, but at the end of the line adjacent or outside the tight end. The F-back is able to do many of the same things as the fullback position, but starts closer to the line of scrimmage and on the edge, allowing them to reach defenders easier or to get downfield quicker to block second-level defenders.
That’s where USC could often place an extra tight end this year. Whereas Pinner and Vainuku weren’t playmaking pass options, the athletic Tyler Petite and Imatorbhebhe could become nightmares against opposing linebackers, possessing the ability to quickly turn a short pass into a lengthy gain. But Helton was quick to point out that while they were recruited to stretch the field vertically, "to get on this field, you're going to have to show the toughness of the run game."
“It's just us broadening our skill set and doing more of the fullback stuff that's been done in the past,” he said.
“We've always been asked to do it, but in years past, Soma and Jahleel just did it better, so they did it in the game. We got to watch them and now it's our turn to do it. It's not really that anything has changed, it's just us shifting into that role that they did last year.”
Instead of the dual-roles being a burden, the tight ends see a chance for additional playing time.
“I think for sure if there's going to be more two tight end sets in a game, we'll have more of an opportunity to contribute and help us to win,” Imatorbhebhe said. “Since there’s not an F this year, there’s even more attention to detail on the blocking and the run game and the off-the-ball type stuff.”
Tasked with teaching that attention to detail at both positions is John Baxter, who returns to USC after being the special teams coordinator from 2010-13. In 2013, he also took over tight end duties — a position he has previously coached at Arizona, Tulane and Fresno State.
Imatorbhebhe has been receptive to his new position coach’s style and wisdom, calling him a “master teacher of the game.” He’s looking forward to an opportunity that he said has been years in the making. When asked about what makes his game stand out, he said he tries to play with a passion and intensity on every snap.
“I've dreamt about playing on this practice field since I was a kid. I just try to give my all, remembering that and keeping that view.”
Though he was born in California, Imatorbhebhe spent the majority of his youth on the East Coast, including playing his high school football at Suwanee (Ga.) North Gwinnett. He intially committed and enrolled at Florida last January, but ultimately chose to transfer to USC. NCAA transfer rules forced him to sit out and redshirt last season, but he has relished the chance to be back in Southern California where he noted he doesn’t have to worry about what the weather is going to be.
The cross-country transition can be tough, but Imatorbhebhe said Georgia is much closer than it may appear on a map because of red-eye flights and the ability to travel coast-to-coast in a night. And this semester, he brought a piece of home back to California in the form of 6-foot-2, 210-pound four-star wide receiver and baby brother, Josh Imatorbhebhe.
“It's been cool,” Daniel said of having Josh on campus the last two months. “It's just like old times because we've spent 17 years of our lives together. Now just being able to see him everyday. Being able to line up and look to my right or my left, it's comforting.”
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