If you want to measure where this USC team is this summer, compared to where it was in previous years, just ask Darreus Rogers.
Or watch him.
"I'm two steps faster," says the senior wide receiver from Compton who admits to getting a bit of a late start in his career here. That's two steps since last fall. Two quick steps, he says.
Darreus talks of getting his 40 time down "to the low 4.5's," after a best-ever 4.61 in his previous years at USC. And he talks of becoming a talker now as a team leader who missed his first fall at USC thanks to the NCAA Clearinghouse's inability to decide on one high school course -- was it approved or not?
The Clearinghouse said yes it was, then no, maybe it wasn't, then finally two days before fall class was about to start in 2012 and after missing the first three weeks of August practice, Rogers got the call. He was good to go. Class approved. No problem.
Only there was. No way a freshman makes up that kind practice deficit. So the decision was made for him to enroll in the spring semester of 2013, "as a classmate with Max [Browne] and Su'a [Cravens] and those guys," he said.
He'll turn 22 "September 3rd, game day," he says, when beating Alabama will be on his mind more than birthday cake.
"It's for the best," says Darreus, who is set to graduate in the fall semester with his degree in Communications. "I'd have come in with Robert [Woods], Marqise [Lee] and Nelson [Agholor]," he says of USC's back-to-back-to-back All-American trio. "I'd have redshirted anyway."
Now he's ready to step into that No. 2 supporting spot with another USC All-American, JuJu Smith-Schuster, after catching 28 passes as a junior with 11 starts despite missing three games with a strained hamstring. That was second to JuJu's 89, only with a twist. Darreus says he's not the same guy who complemented JuJu last fall.
That Darreus Rogers was solid, dependable but not all that flashy or exciting -- except of course for that one spectacular twisting, turning, lunging touchdown reception against UCLA when he beat three defenders to extend the football across the goal line against the Bruins.
So what's different, Darreus?
I am, Darreus says. "This is the hardest I've ever worked. It's what I do 24-7, every waking hour. That's all I do. I'm down to 213 (from 220 pounds), I'm faster, stronger, with more explosiveness" and with those two steps, "it will give me more separation." That's what's different.
It may have taken a bit of time for it to click for him, Darreus says, but what he picked up from following Robert, Marqise and Nelson was "their work ethic -- how they competed in practice like it was a game and the game was easy after the way they practiced. They were superstars but they practiced like they hadn't done anything."
That's Darreus' mantra this summer. "I'm doing nothing but weights, eating right, watching film 24/7," he says, (all Alabama). "Coach [Clay] Helton is doing an awesome job. He's there every day with us. It's more serious for us now. There's a team-first attitude with these guys."
He says new USC coach Keary Colbert has been very helpful. "He says I remind him of him, maybe not quite as big," Darreus says of the USC great wide receiver just arrived in the spring from Alabama. "He's been encouraging me to trust my hands. And with that confidence, to focus on the yards after the catch." Like that UCLA catch and score.
Those hands "will catch the ball 10 times out of 10, or at least nine, when the ball gets there," Darreus says. "When the ball is in the air, I know it's mine. I know I'm going to catch the rock. Catching is what I do."
It's what's happening next where the difference comes, Darreus says. "I have time to think about my 'turn-up' moves now," Darreus says after catches he knows he'll make. "I know the playbook perfectly. I only have to think about my moves.
"Don't be surprised to see me turn it up," Darreus says, which won't be a surprise to anyone who's been to the player-run practices. He does that routinely. As he did Tuesday on his first catch over the middle followed by a stop and spin move that had defenders going one way then chasing him another.
Then he used speed, a simple burst, to get open quickly on a deep out route, something Sam Darnold immediately picked up on as Sam flipped him a 40-yard quick bomb in mid-stride. "He put it right in the basket . . . that's the kind of trust you want to earn from the quarterbacks," Darreus says.
"That's the model. Get the ball to the guy who's open," the coaches say. "If they're open, get them the ball."
But that philosophy and trust and those hands only work at the top end when you can run -- first to get open and then to get yards after you get the ball. Darreus says he's that guy now. But it's not all speed. It's making moves. Darreus says he has a favorite one.
"I'll act like I'm running full-speed and do a 1-2 stop, then make the defender stop his feet, or cross them over, and then have that burst to get by . . . Don't be surprised if you see that Sept. 3."
Tuesday's Ghost Notes
For a play-by-play of this morning's player-run-practice, click http://mbd.scout.com/mb.aspx?s=15&f=1017&t=14839114.
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