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USC Trojans

Wide receiver development could decide USC’s 2017 fate

PASADENA, CA - JANUARY 02: USC Trojans WR Deontay Burnett (80) and QB Sam Darnold (14) celebrate after a 27-yard touchdown reception to tie the game 49 to 49 late in the fourth quarter of the USC Trojans game versus the Penn State Nittany Lions in the Rose Bowl Game on January 2, 2017, at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, CA. (Photo by John Cordes/Icon Sportswire)
John Cordes/Icon Sportswire

USC football boasts a long and distinguished history of top-flight wide receivers, from Lynn Swann to Keyshawn Johnson. The program’s recent stretch of standouts in that position might be the best anywhere in college football, with Mike Williams, Keary Colbert, Dwayne Jarrett, Steve Smith, Robert Woods, Marqise Lee, Nelson Agholor and JuJu Smith-Schuster all producing at remarkable — and sometimes historic — paces.

Deontay Burnett carved out his own place among Trojans legends when he caught quarterback Sam Darnold’s game-tying touchdown throw late in the fourth quarter of last January’s Rose Bowl. That grab was the culmination of a 164-yard, three-touchdown performance.

It will be difficult for Burnett to top, or even match, a showing of that magnitude, but it’s a giant step forward in becoming the latest great USC receiver. Tim Lester, head coach of USC’s Week 1 opponent, Western Michigan, mentioned Burnett specifically as one of his primary concerns when facing the Trojans.

Even with Burnett returning to the fold off a monster finale to last season, pass-catching in general looms as one of the more prominent question marks facing No. 4-ranked USC in 2017.

“After losing JuJu Smith-Schuster, Darreus Rogers, DeQuan Hampton, Issac Whitney, we lost our [first-string and second-string],” Trojans head coach Clay Helton said.

That foursome combined for more than 1,700 yards and scored 16 touchdowns in 2016. Beyond Burnett, the next-most productive returner among the receivers is Steven Mitchell, who caught 226 yards in an injury-shortened campaign.

With vacancies in both the first and second lines of the depth chart comes an opportunity, however. Helton said that has led to competition over the course of fall camp.

USC isn’t without talented options, either. Youngsters Velus Jones and Tyler Vaughns impressed in April’s spring game, and they appear second on the Week 1 depth chart behind veterans Burnett and Mitchell.

Converted quarterback Jalen Greene, who caught over 100 yards of passes in 2016, occupies the third starting receiver spot. Behind him is Michael Pittman, a ballyhooed recruit when he arrived at USC who worked primarily on special teams last season.

The capacity for a new playmaker or two to emerge is there; whether someone does so is less certain.

Heisman QB candidate Darnold said this summer that one of his points of emphasis before reaching Week 1 was building “chemistry” with the receiver corps. That’s an element of Darnold’s success — upon taking over as starting quarterback four games into the 2016 season — that cannot be overstated.

Darnold had a natural rapport with his pass-catchers, built over two seasons in practices. He excelled spreading the ball among various pass-catchers — no Trojan had more than 914 yards, but a remarkable nine reached triple digits. That extended to running backs Ronald Jones II and the graduated Justin Davis, as well as tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe, who is back for another season.

Imatorbhebhe should still continue to function as a de facto member of the receiver corps. Jones remains a dangerous option out of the backfield. Having a multifaceted group of receivers is paramount to the USC offense — particularly given the fact that recent Trojan teams often relied too heavily on a single target.

Darnold’s efforts to jell with the current crop could pay dividends once the season officially kicks off.

“The more time you have with your receivers, the better you’re going to be,” Darnold said. “You’ve got to be able to play with him, relate to them, talk to them off the field. That’s really important, create the bond with each other.

“It’s been a blast,” he said of the process. “They’re great dudes.”

If they’re equally great in competition, USC will have successfully addressed one of its biggest concerns for 2017.

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