Backup quarterback Matt Fink fired a pass to the corner of the end zone. Vaughns jumped up, hovering in the air for a half second as the football arrived. He caught the ball above Jones and quickly yanked it back to keep the defender from raking the ball free — something Jones had done to Vaughns in a scrimmage earlier in spring. Jones’ swipe attempt missed and Vaughns fell backward in the corner of the end zone for the only passing touchdown of USC's spring game.
The former five-star prospect out of La Puente (Calif.) Bishop Amat is one of the top candidates to fill the Trojans’ void at receiver where they do not return a 700-yard receiver from the previous season for the first time since 2011. Since then USC has been blessed with Robert Woods then Marqise Lee, Nelson Agholor and JuJu Smith-Schuster.
Now the Trojans are looking to slender but sure-handed slot receiver Deontay Burnett (56 catches for 622 yards after a 13-catch, 164-yard performance in the Rose Bowl) and a glut of super talented Class of 2016 receivers to continue to recent tradition of outstanding pass catchers for the cardinal and gold.
Vaughns and three other members of that 2016 receiving class redshirted last year. Only fellow five-star Michael Pittman played last season and he was more of a special teams specialist than receiver, catching six passes for 82 yards.
For Vaughns, the most important lesson he learned from the redshirting process was to trust the process and be ready to make the most of your chance when it comes.
“Everything is going to happen, everything is going to fall into place, so just wait for your turn and opportunity and just have fun out here,” Vaughns said. “Really going against everybody out here last year really helped me as a receiver just to get more aggressive and try to know certain zones to hit, certain zones not to. Last year helped me more mentally than anything.”
The 6-foot-2, 180-pound wideout has learned how to read safeties, see where the defense lines up and has a better understanding of what the defenders are trying to do before they do it. He has combined that with this ability to pinpoint the ball and pick it out of the air — it’s what he thinks makes him a unique receiver.
“For me, I feel like it's a 99 percent chance I'm going to catch [a deep ball] unless it's far away from me, but that's just my mentality,” Vaughns said. “I don't feel as if the ball is anybody else's but mine in the air, so I feel like I'm the deep ball threat type of receiver here.
What stands out to offensive coordinator Tee Martin, who recruited Vaughns to USC, is his explosive ability within his route running.
“Since Marqise Lee, he's one of the most shifty receivers we've had in terms of his route transition and ability to speed in and out of cuts without slowing down and then his catch radius. Dynamic, dynamic route runner. Catches the ball.
“His competitive desire to get to the ball and make plays really really showed and came to the forefront this spring -- one-on-one drills, team drills just kept looking around and 21 was making plays. We needed him to do that and he came through.”
The Trojans now need Vaughns, Pittman and the rest of the returning receiver group to hit their stride in the offseason working with Sam Darnold. The first couple of weeks of spring were rough at times because Darnold was still trying to get on the page with the new group after he spent last year throwing to the now departed Smith-Schuster, Darreus Rogers, De'Quan Hampton and Isaac Whitney.
The group improved during the spring, but still has plenty of work to do.
“We came out a little shaky. For the first week, we wasn't hitting. We weren't on speed with each other so that kind of messed us up, but we've been dialing in lately,” Vaughns said. “As a whole, we've progressed real good.”
Watch Tyler Vaughns, above, talk about how he and the receiver group are progressing this spring and how the group is finding a rapport with quarterback Sam Darnold.
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