Daniel Imatorbhebhe was an afterthought on opponent’s scouting reports to begin the year. He was third on the depth chart at tight end for a team that seemed to refuse to even look in the tight ends’ direction.
Though the redshirt freshman from Suwanee (Ga.) North Gwinnett played in each of USC’s first five games, he had just one short 7-yard catch in a blowout of Utah State.
But then fellow redshirt freshman Sam Darnold found him for a 13-yard gain early in the game against Colorado. The very next play, Darnold looked to his left for JuJu Smith-Schuster first before coming back to the middle of the field, scanning for a hole in the defense. He found Imatorbhebhe open over the top in the seam and lofted a pass that Imatorbhebhe made a diving catch of for a 32-yard touchdown.
Imatorbhebhe added an 8-yard touchdown against Arizona the following week and a 17-yard TD grab against California. He had two catches for 37 yards, including a tipped circus grab for a career-long 37-yard gain, against Oregon before exploding for a career game Saturday in USC’s 26-13 upset of No. 4 Washington.
The Trojans routinely attacked the middle of the Huskies' defense and Imatorbhebhe was one of Darnold’s favorite targets. He snagged five passes for 78 yards. His first three catches each went for more than 20 yards and moved USC into the red zone on back-to-back touchdown drives.
For his final reception, it was Imatorbhebhe’s turn to get in the end zone. He ran a beautiful stop-and-go route that froze the linebacker and Darnold made a nice throw to where only Imatorbhebhe could catch the ball, which he did for an 8-yard score that put the Trojans ahead 24-13.
Imatorbhebhe talks about that score and his overall big game:
Question: How did the game come together for you out there?
Daniel Imatorbhebhe: I just went where they told me to go and did what they told me to do really.
Q: When Sam Darnold dropped it in there, what did you think was going to happen before the ball got to you?
DI: We were supposed to read the coverage and the linebacker kind of just stood there, so I was confused. He threw it up, so I was like alright got to go get it.
Q: Was the route for you to go to the back of the end zone?
DI: Yea. It was like a stick and go type deal. Just reading it. Trying to sit in the window, if it's there. If it's not, go in behind it.
Q: Did you think as soon as you caught it that you had one foot down?
DI: I was looking for the ref, you know [for the] touchdown [signal]. I know that was a big score to put us up. I was happy. Found my teammates, celebrated with them, got back on the side and got ready to do it again.
Q: Did you think Darnold could get it in there because that's a hard throw?
DI: I don't question Sam any more. I know he's going to put it where only I can get it, so my job is to just catch it. He can make pretty much every throw on the field, so it's on me if I'm not there. If it's a bad throw that means I'm out of position usually.
Q: Does Sam Darnold sometimes leave you in awe because of what he can do already as a redshirt freshman?
DI: Yea. All the time because he's a beast and he's so humble. This winning streak that we're on or the success that we're having, the [props] go to Sam. He's balling out and he’s turned things around for us. I love playing with him. I love being on his team. It's been great.
Q: How does it feel to finally contribute? What's your satisfaction level this week compared to two or three weeks ago?
DI: I mean I feel like I've always been contributing. It's been different from last year to this year. It's just people kind of see it now, but everybody has a role. I have a role too. I go out there and I'm like, 'Whatever I'm asked to do, I'm going to do it to the best of my abilities.' Whatever I can do to help the team win because not everybody can be a superstar. Not everybody can be like Adoree' [Jackson] or Sam. You know what I mean? I have to be the best me I can be. Just from this week to last week, just continuing to do that. Whatever they need me to do, I'm going to do.
Q: How do you explain the increase in production in this game?
DI: I don't. I'm grateful that the coaches trust me enough to put me in the game. I just try to go out there and make them proud. Try to go out there and not let my teammates down because there's so much that goes into just one person catching a pass for a touchdown or a long gain. The line has to block. The running back has to do pass protection. The quarterback has to see it and throw it. I'm out there. I'm like, 'Man, I can't let my guys down.' Because I know they love me. This is how I show that I love them by trying my best to make a play.
Q: How do you feel you've developed your role the last couple of weeks?
DI: Just getting more comfortable, getting more confident. Just trying to let my teammates and coaches know that I'm not willingly ever going to let them down. It's been fun. It's not all me. A lot of my success goes to Taylor [McNamara], Tyler [Petite] and all these guys because they help me out a lot. I'm grateful to the coaches for putting me out there. It's been fun.
Q: Is your brother [freshman wide receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe, who is redshirting this season] getting jealous?
DI: Jealous? Never, man. I love him so much. I know he's probably happier for me than me.
Q: What did you expect to happen tonight coming into this game?
DI: I mean I expected us to answer the challenge -- huge challenge coming over here and we embraced it. I'm not going to say that I'm surprised that we won because I don't think anybody is, but we came out here and we did what we have to do. We were going to either win or lose doing what we do, playing our style, playing as Trojans. We did it tonight and we won.
Q: Does it feel like you're at the big program across the country that you heard about in Georgia or has it always felt like that?
DI: Oh it's always felt like that since I stepped on campus first day in the summer. I'm so happy to be here. Singing the fight song in the locker room. I used to watch those videos of the old guys, "Fight On!" I'm like yea I'm in it! You know what I mean?
Q: After the Alabama game I imagine it didn't seem like the program you signed up for:
DI: I mean I guess, but I had a role in that game too. I had a role in the Stanford game. I had a role in Utah. I guess the better I've done, the more responsibility I've gotten, but it doesn't diminish me doing what I had to do to help the team win. I feel the same right now as I did after Alabama even though we lost. It sucked, but I did my best to do whatever I could do to help us win with the opportunity I was given.
Q: From the beginning of the year, do you feel you guys are so much better?
DI: Yea. They're getting used to playing with each other. The defense is growing a lot together because you know Coach Clancy [Pendergast] just came in in the spring. The offense is finding their groove. We've got so many weapons and we're learning how to use them all. There are still some that we've got to do a better job of using. But I think it's just time. We're finding our rhythm as a group, as brothers and it's just showing on the field.
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Publisher Ryan Abraham contributed to this story.
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