Since Lane Kiffin was head coach at USC, the tight end position has seen a gradual decline in production within the offense. In more recent years, the position has lacked the depth and talent to be a focal point of the offense.
Tight ends coach John Baxter has wasted no time throwing his young tight ends into the fire.
“Bottomline is you have to force them in there, don’t help them very much and they have to learn to play,” said Baxter. “You’re a freshman until you play, so I freely rotate them in practice.
“There is no one, two or three, they just rotate. If one guys gets a certain play, I want to make sure the next guys gets that play too. That’s how you get experience. Put them into the deep end and see if they can swim. At the same time, you have to teach them the stokes so they don’t drown.”
Imatorbhebhe came to USC from Florida last year, which technically, makes him a veteran rather than a newcomer. Still, having to sit out last season, he is a new addition to the group of players making potential contributions in 2016.
“He’s coming along,” said Baxter. “He’s a guy with great speed and great quickness, so when he strikes he really strikes.
“You have to play fast, so you have to give these guys reps. When the assignment becomes second nature, you can maximize effort. That’s what training camp is all about. Guys also have to wrap their head around the reality that they have to play — there’s nobody else.”
One of USC’s biggest needs last recruiting cycle was at tight end, so the addition of Exton (Pa.) four-star Cary Angeline has been vital to the position’s ability to field a legitimate D-I caliber scout team.
“He’s very, very talented,” said Baxter. “He’s a great prospect in the passing game who is tall and has great hands.
“He’s a good route runner too, so he’s been well coached. We’re just working on his learning the plays. He’s working so he can physically execute his assignments. Tight ends have to know the whole offense. They’re like the quarterbacks.
“They have to know the runs, the passes, the protections, the routes… and it’s a pretty significant playbook to master. But all signs says he’s going to be a pretty good player.”
USC is one of the few college programs running a pro-style offense. That in itself makes the tight end position more important to the success of the offense. But with so many high schools running air raid and spread offenses, newcomers have to be mentally ready for the task of playing a multifaceted position.
“This is what I tell those guys, ‘If you can split out and run a route, great, but there will always be a receiver better than you,’” said Baxter. “‘If you can come in and put your hand on the ground, and handle a defensive end in the run game, then there’s no player like you.’
“They have to be built as line of scrimmage players and then we gradually move them away from the ball. That’s how we do it. They have to learn to love the line of scrimmage. Football is a line of scrimmage game. Always has been, always will be.”
Sophomore tight end Tyler Petite concurs that the psychology of the game changes from high school to college.
“It’s like a mindset you have to have banging heads with another dude,” said Petite. “You have to have that in your mind because some people are more timid than others.
“That’s what is good with our tight ends because we have developed that already. But it is a really big transition. Coming out of high school, I wasn’t blocking Porter Gustin. It’s a difficult adjustment.
“We talk about it in our room… when you doubt yourself, you start to widen your hands and that’s when you see the hugging or paddy cake type blocking. It looks soft. After a year and however many practices of going against Porter, you start to build that confidence.”
According to Petite, winning blocks, and thus winning confidence, is centered around technique.
“You see guys pancaking defenders on film in high school all of the time, but you have to realize that more often than not, you’re not going to drive a guy 10-yards off the ball,” said Petite. “I mean, you’re not going to be pancaking Porter Gustin, who’s a 270-pound muscular freak.
“There are so many aspects other than just putting a guy o the ground. That’s where the technique of just doing your job and allowing the ball carrier to help you win a block. Coach Baxter does a real good job in film showing us those things.”
Petite is now considered a veteran of the tight ends, which is odd seeing that he is still just a sophomore. But nonetheless, he is left to mentor the younger tight ends in camp.
“Cary is the new guy, so you can see he’s just developing and learning everyday,” said Petite. “Daniel has been here for a year now, so he’s at a different developmental point.
“Time will only tell if Cary will get there. Do I think he’s a good player? Absolutely, and we wouldn’t recruit a guy into our room if that wasn’t the case. But right now his strength is the passing game and he has to develop to become more balanced with his entire game.”
Newcomer top performers:
With two scrimmages down, USC is now beyond the halfway point in fall camp. So far, these are the top 10 performing newcomers of camp.
Simply put, Tui'Kolovatu has been the most notable newcomer to a USC practice in a decade. As a transfer going into his senior season, he is excited to contribute right away and that is exactly what he is doing for the defense.
The wide receiver position is stacked with youth, but USC remains in pursuit of finding a physically dominant player at the position. De'Quan Hampton and Isaac Whitney have shown potential in camp, but the best bet long term to continue the tradition of Keyshawn Johnson, Mike Williams and Dwayne Jarret at the position is Pittman.
OT E.J. Price
Starting camp out as the second team left tackle, Price has held his own at one of the toughest positions to play as a newcomer to the offense. Although quarterbacks are not live in practice, the staff has put a lot of confidence in Price being able to protect the blindside despite his inexperience.
DT Liam Jimmons
Adding 20-pounds to his frame since spring football, Jimmons is making a solid push to be in the two-deep rotation come September. Now 285-pounds, he has been a solid contributor every practice on the interior defensive line. Jimmons isn't flashy, but he works hard and plays tough.
CB Jack Jones
Jones has taken his lumps on occasion in practice, but cornerback is a high risk, high reward position for a true freshman. When you do well, everyone will see it. If you get beat, everyone sees that too. Jones has been pushed around by the bigger wide outs all camps long, but he hasn't shied away from stealing reps from other cornerbacks and constantly competing.
DT Joshua Fatu
Although Fatu hasn't been nearly as dominant in the middle as Stevie Tui'Kolovatu, the junior college transfer has been a steady contributor for the second team defense the past two weeks.
As stated, the wide receiver has plenty of youth, and with five new wide receivers making their fall camp debut, there are only so many reps to go around. Vaughns has played as an inside and outside receiver; getting reps with the first team offense in the slot. Vaughns is second to only Deonte Burnett when he comes to fluid route running and exceptionally consistent hands in traffic.
Imatorbhebhe is another player who has shown great flashes of talent in drills. While he has only caught a couple of passes in the two scrimmages USC has held, Imatorbhebhe has done well against the younger defensive backs in seven-on-seven drills. Imatorbhebhe is one of the receivers that Jack Jones has had trouble pressing off the line of scrimmage.
Betiku is as raw as newcomers get, but his fault out athletic ability can be a force to reckon with. In passing situations and linemen one-on-ones, Betiku has even been a handful for the veteran offensive linemen. However, outside those specialty areas, he often shows his inexperience.
Murphy is far more polished as a football player than Oluwole Betiku, but the 6-foot-7, 260-pound predator linebacker still has tons of physical potential to be tapped. What's exciting about his progress are the natural skills he posses despite he relatively lean frame. His lateral movement and football IQ are well ahead of some of the other players on the roster.