Shotgun Spratling | USCfootball.com

USC's wide receiver position continues to lead the way for the Trojans

The beat goes on at the position that has driven the USC train for the last decade and a half as we look at how a deep wide receiver spot, with incoming freshman like Michael Pittmen (above), is shapng up for 2016.

For a late-comer to USC football circa 2002, it was the spot that helped launch the Trojans back to the top of the college football heap.

And on this day when Clay Helton helps his Trojans to beat the heat with an early morning conditioning session at the beach and no player run practice, we step back from worrying about the defensive line and look at the position that just seems to keep replenishing itself with new talent.

As we remember from the arrival of that first freshman who changed things the day we also arrived to cover USC football -- Mike Williams. As important as Heisman Trophy winner Carson Palmer and his senior compadre Troy Polamalu were that turnaround season, it was BMW who made the difference. Too big, too strong, too skilled -- and that was his rookie season.

It was just the start. Too short, as it turned out, just another season for BMW here. But he started a trend. Dwayne Jarrett of "fourth and nine" fame at Notre Dame followed as USC's first two-time All-American wide receiver in 2005-2006 and a unanimous pick in 2006. The All-American parade continued with Steve Smith and his three TD catches against Oklahoma in the 2005 national title game.

And in a 1-2-3 punch from 2011 and 2012 through 2014, USC threw All-Americans Robert Woods, Biletnikoff winner Marqise Lee and Nelson Agholor into the mix. And now there's JuJu Smith-Schuster, a worthy successor in 2016. And without even mentioning Adoree' Jackson, last season's fourth-leading receiver with 27 receptions in minimal duty there.

For those keeping score, that's seven All-Americans, seven receivers in the discussion for best in the nation.

Which is where JuJu starts his junior year. But this preseason piece isn't about JuJu, it's about the position where he leads on a daily basis -- along with senior Darreus Rogers, a fellow tough-minded, strong-handed 215-pounder. Start with them. They're the guys who catch it in a crowd.

But that's not the only crowd here right now. This Trojan team returns a lot of guys who can play -- and with three seniors departing and at least two juniors, it's no surprise that as many as six freshmen have been lined up to replace them. And for our purposes now, we're not including either Ajene Harris, who really seems to be catching on at corner and Jack Jones, who starts out at corner and probably doesn't leave there -- at least not until Adoree' leaves, that is.

And even though we haven't seen Floridian Pie Young and Alabaman Velus Jones yet, a pair of speedsters from SEC country who arrived this past weekend, we've been able to pick up some impressions of the rest of the new guys as they compete with a strong stable of veterans.

Which is the key. "I never promise anybody they're going to play," wide receivers coach Tee Martin, now the offensive coordinator, told us the other day. So far it doesn't seem to have kept them away.

*** Michael Pittman: Big and strong at 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds, doesn't look like a freshman. Benefited from being here this spring as an early entry guy even if his collarbone injury prevented his full participation. Another receiver who seems to be able to catch it in a crowd and is something of a hybrid guy.  

*** Josh Imatorbhebhe: In some ways, the Georgia product can play bigger and stronger than Pittman with his thickness and vertical leap at 210 pounds as well. One more incoming target who does not look like a freshman.

*** Trevon Sidney: Not the same player you saw on video last fall. He's put on 15 pounds of muscle, Tee says of Sidney, and has clearly listened to his coach about what it will take to be a factor in college football. Has impressed in his two weeks here.

*** Tyler Vaughns: Now the slim (6-2, 180) Bishop Amat grad does look like a freshman -- until you throw him the ball. He has those major league baseball shortstop's hands -- soft and sure. Tight end Tyler Petite has them. He can high-point it as well. If he can run by people and create separation, despite the numbers, he may force his way onto the field.

And we have yet to talk about four more valuable returnees, in addition to the Nos. 1, 2 and 4 receivers -- JuJu *89 catches, 1,454 yards, 16.1 average, 10 TD) , Darreus (28 catches, 289 yards, 10.3 average, 3 TD) and Adoree' (27 catches, 414 yards, 15.3 average, 2 TD), There is a host of help here.

*** Deontay Burnett: The acrobatic sophomore has picked up where he left off after a freshman season with 10 catches for 161 yards in limited opportunities. Maybe the highlight of the summer workouts are his teammates, after a long TD catch, call out for Deontay to do his 360-degree backward flip in celebration.

*** De'Quan Hampton: Another hybrid guy at 6-4, 220 pounds whose adjustment period after transferring from junior college is well past him now. Worked hard on his hands and his routes and has become a vocal leader after 15 catches for 165 yards (11.0 average).

*** Steven Mitchell: The No. 3 receiver last fall (37 catches, 335 yards, 9.1 average, 4 TD), the speedy junior is built more like a running back and that has to be where his impact is -- on yards after the catch while earning the trust of his QB to run out the route.

*** Isaac Whitney: The second of USC's two JC transfer seniors with a season of experience behind him now, Isaac is the rangy (6-3, 205) home run hitter type who caught eight balls for for 112 yards (14.0 average) and two TD). And is making plays this summer.

So that's a baker's dozen of wide receivers not counting a couple of multi-position defenders or any of the four tight ends and a fullback who will be targeted. Good thing the offense is geared, as Tee keeps telling us, to build on -- and open up -- the concepts that got USC here.

The point of the passing game this season will be not so much to target people in progressions but to recognize the targets immediately as they get open and get the ball to them, whoever they are and wherever they are, and let them make explosive plays in space.

"i think we're really starting to get how that works," Tee says.

Which is what summer session football has always been about -- geared to going to the wide receiver. 

You can follow me on Twitter at @dweber3440 or email me at weber@uscfootball.com.

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