Two years ago, USC did not have enough scholarship wide receivers on the roster to have a two-deep for the Holiday Bowl practices against Nebraska.
At the time, wide receivers coach Tee Martin spoke frustratingly about the challenges in running an up-tempo offense with a handful of division one caliber players at his disposal.
“Sark (Steve Sarkisian) yells out, ‘Give me some twos, I need second team receivers,’” said Martin at the time. “I look over to my left, and I’ve got one guy that can go in. I look to my right and it’s all walk-ons.
“Like c’mon, we don’t have eight wide outs to run a decent second team? We’re not talking about scout team. We can’t run the first team offense because we have no back ups to give the first team guys a break in practice.”
Now the Trojans offensive coordinator, Martin welcomed 13 wide receivers to the first day of fall camp Thursday.
“It’s good to have some depth,” said Martin. “Man, thing back a couple of years ago… (laugh). We had a few scholarship guys and some walk-ons who gave it their all.
“We may be losing a few guys at the end of the season, and we’ll talk about that when we get there, but it’s a process and it takes the young guys time. We have to plan for the future and the young guys are coming to find we run a complex system. There are a lot of facets to it from a personnel standpoint.
“The other thing is, the young guys haven’t been around us. It’s different than being at a player run practice. They’re doing things at their pace, but when you come out here, the coaches are pushing you. You’re getting yelled at and still have to perform.
“From that standpoint, the first day went as expected. The young guys looked like young guys. They need help, but you did see their toughness and their desire to want to play. They really want to play and are jumping in to get reps.”
One freshman surprised everyone with his presence in wide receiver position drills Thursday.
While Martin is considered one of the best recruiters in college football today, he took no credit for Keyshawn Young’s move from cornerback during the summer to wide out the first day of camp.
“Well, he didn’t come to any receiver meetings,” said Martin. “In fact, he met with the defense. then when he got to the field, he was in a receivers jersey wearing No. 83.
“I had no idea. We have to meet with him and figure out what he plans to do and how we move forward.”
“In the spring, everything was really fast for them, but the information stuck,” said Martin. “I think they now understand the pace of things and what is expected. The summer time is good because it starts to come together in PRP’s.
“They see things in a different way. Now we’re in training camp, now they’re getting lined up right and understanding concepts. The main thing they have to work on are the details.”
Pittman, who many thought coming out of high school may end up playing tight end or linebacker, had a standout day Thursday. His approach to learning the offense is to teach it.
“With the new guys, we’re out here working, but it’s not going to come to them first day,” said Pittman. “The best way to learn plays is to teach them to someone else.
“So really, teaching the new guys the plays is actually helping me learn the plays. They’re helping me get better and I’m helping them at the same time.”
An astute point that brought a smile to Martin’s face.
“The saying in our room is that the teacher learns the most,” said Martin. “There is only so much time that I can spend with them. And if Juju (Smith) can’t get on the board and teach it, I’ve done a bad job as a coach.
“At the same time, I can’t expect him to perform at a high level if he can’t explain our concepts to a freshman. That’s something we’ve passed down over the years and it has worked.”
For Pittman, spring was as much about meshing with the team as it was learning the playbook.
“Going from high school to college was a big transition,” said Pittman. “Getting the tempo and working with near professional athletes is what has really helped. I’m glad I got here in the spring to have that opportunity.”
USC has a long, rich tradition in using big wide receivers. From Keyshawn Johnson, to Mike Williams and Dwayne Jarrett, Pittman follows in some big shoes literally and figuratively.
“I really try to base everything I’m doing on me,” said Pittman. “Of course, you think about those names that have played here, but I have to be the best I can be.
“And we have a lot of older guys that really help coach me up. It’s like having a group of older brothers.”
Pittman is 100-percent healthy and says he feels faster and stronger than in the spring.
I’m 6-foot-4, around 215-pounds right now,” said Pittman. “I actually dropped weight since the spring.
“I had of those hover boards and I broke it in half just riding it. Actually, I was up to like 230-pounds when I broke my collarbone in the Army game, so I’m lighter now than I have been. The strength coach and conditioning program has really help.”
Pittman is currently playing both the X and Z spots in the offense with fellow freshman Tyler Vaughns opposite of Josh Imatorbehbhe.
“A few of those guys showed flashes today,” said Martin. “Mike Pittman had a couple of big catches down field. Tyler Vaughns has showed us some good football savvy and IQ. He was fluid out there today.
“Velus (Jones) dropped some passes early, but I was encouraged by how the young guys didn’t get down because they didn’t make plays. You cant drop a pass and then disappear the rest of practice. I like how guys like Velus kept fighting and kept their heads in it.”
News and Notes from practice:
Freshman left tackle E.J. Price received second team reps with the offense Thursday ahead of Roy Hemsley. Freshman Frank Martin further down the depth chart stepped in at right guard.
Freshman Jack Jones and junior transfer Stevie Tui’Kolovatu were among the first newcomers to get reps in full team scrimmaging Thursday. Liam Jimmons at defensive end also received reps in the final practice period.
Freshman wide out/cornerback Keyshawn Young was wearing No. 83 Thursday, while freshman linebacker Jordan Iosefa wearing No. 56. Iosefa played outside linebacker in what would be considered the SAM spot in USC’s defense.
Freshman safety Jamel Cook came warmed up with the team in No. 21, but the left the field shortly after stretches. His status remains undetermined.
A couple of overthrown passes got Velus Jones off to a bad start Thursday. Jones dropped additional passes and struggled to field punts before eventually ending practice with a a few catches. Jack Jones also fielded punts for the freshmen.
Jones and freshman wide receiver Trevon Sidney both saw a majority of their reps from the slot. Sidney had a couple of head turning moves during seven-on-seven. Sidney is lightning quick and his routes were very crisp Thursday in no pads.
Freshman running back, Vavae Malepeai, who is inaccurately listed at 190-pounds, had a couple of very nice runs toward the end of team scrimmaging. Malepeai, who looks closer to 215-pounds, bounced the ball to the left side and displayed enough burst to leave onlookers saying “That doesn’t look like a fullback.”