Backed up to their own goal line, the USC offense had to get to the 20-yard line. It was a drill designed to put the offense in a tough situation and force it to work its way out. The defense had dominated for the most part and had forced another third-and-long.
Facing a third-and-8, Sam Darnold took a chance. He floated a ball out to the left and gave Michael Pittman a shot to make a play. The 6-foot-4 sophomore skied over the corner back, highpointing the ball a foot above the defensive back's outstretched hand and bringing it down for a lengthy first down catch that got the offense out of the shadow of the goal posts.
"When I first got in here, I was not very technically sound, so they coached me to get away from using as much body, but now I feel like I'm losing my big factor, so I'm trying to get big again in that sense to be more physical," Pittman said. "I'm trying to just find a good balance of when to be big and when to be a small receiver."
"I told him afterwards those are the type of plays he's going to have to make for us -- those tough catches that Darreus [Rogers] made for us, that JuJu [Smith-Schuster] made," Helton said. "Those where people are draped all over you and you use your physicality and your size to outstrength a guy, outphysical a guy."
Pittman began the spring as a frontrunner for a starting receiver spot after backing up Rogers and Smith-Schuster last season, but he's in the midst of a tough position battle with several other young wideouts making strong impressions. Along with youngsters Tyler Vaughns, Josh Imatorbhebhe and Velus Jones Jr., there are also veteran receivers Deontay Burnett and Jalen Greene who have experience playing inside and outside.
After having minor hand surgery in the offeseason, Pittman struggled catching the ball at the beginning of the spring, so he has been spending time after every practice on the Juggs machine catching an extra 500 passes. He's working to regain the coaches' trust after the early struggles and that starts with catches like the one Tuesday, but also has to include other areas of his game.
"I see a lot that needs to get better to take my game to where I want it to go," Pittman said. "We've got guys like Tay, JG, Tyler Vaughns, Josh and a whole lot of other guys. They just really set the bar and push me to new levels. I'm out here competing with myself, competing against them. We really just push each other to get better."
Watch Michael Pittman, above, talk about his strong day on Tuesday, what he's doing to improve every spring practice and how he sees the position battles shaping up at wide receiver.
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