Championship aspirations abound in Los Angeles as USC football continues its spring practice slate. Unsurprisingly, most eyes are on the Trojans’ Heisman-favorite quarterback, redshirt sophomore Sam Darnold, as he looks to lead the program to its first national championship in more than a decade.
He faces fresh tests in his second collegiate season, though, including a depleting receiving corps. JuJu Smith-Schuster was obviously the most high-profile departure out of the Trojan wideouts, but during his breakout redshirt freshman campaign, Darnold enjoyed the services of Smith-Schuster, Darreus Rogers, and De’Quan Hampton, as well as Justin Davis out of the backfield. None of those four will return next season, and they accounted for close to half of USC’s touchdowns and yards through the air in 2016.
But as is the case with most good quarterbacks, Darnold has flashed the ability to raise his receivers’ level of play, and he will need to do so if the Trojans want to find themselves in Atlanta for the CFP National Championship next January. Thankfully, a program as prestigious as USC never lacks in potential—even if the on-field production hasn’t always been of equal caliber. Who are the main candidates to step into a larger role in the fall, be it carving out a rotation spot or transforming into a top target?
Last season’s Rose Bowl star is probably the most recognizable receiver of the returning Trojan pass catchers. Burnett may have enjoyed a coming-out party on national TV against Penn State, racking up 164 yards and three touchdowns on 13 receptions (all career highs), but his rapport with Darnold had been developing all season. The slot man recorded 93 yards against Arizona State, then 87 plus a touchdown against Oregon. The score versus the Ducks was his third in three games, and Burnett also reeled in 67 yards on four catches during USC’s upset at Washington.
That is exciting production to bring back into the fold, but Burnett now faces two different challenges. First, he must take up a large portion of Smith-Schuster’s vacated production. Helton will undoubtedly tell all of his receivers that their job is not to replicate the contributions of players such as Smith-Schuster and Adoree’ Jackson; nevertheless, as a junior and an already well-established presence on the offense, Burnett will still be expected to step up to make sure Darnold has a consistent weapon. He may have been an up-and-comer in December, but now, just three months later, he must quickly grow into a veteran’s role.
The second challenge is that Burnett no longer enjoys the “protection” of Smith-Schuster. Like a three-hole hitter in baseball who loses his star cleanup man, Burnett will not have his NFL-bound teammate to occupy opposing defenses next fall, both on game day and during the week of practice leading up to the game. It remains to be seen if he can maintain—or better—his production under the extra scrutiny.
The Imatorbhebhe Brothers (and Tyler Petite)
Redshirt sophomore Daniel Imatorbhebhe and junior Tyler Petite aren’t new names to Trojan fans, either. The tight-end dynamic duo served as ever-present red-zone targets for Darnold throughout last season, combining for six touchdowns (Imatorbhebhe grabbed four, Petite two). With the 6’2” Smith-Schuster gone, Darnold may find himself going to his towering tight ends more often in 2017.
But there is also another 6’2” wideout ready to enter the fold. Rumors flew when Imatorbhebhe transferred to USC from Florida in 2015 that he was coming to join his brother, Josh, who was verbally committed to the Trojans as a high schooler at the time. The younger Imatorbhebhe redshirted last year, but he was actually the more-heralded of the brothers coming out of high school. After turning down the likes of Alabama, Michigan, and Ohio State to play under Clay Helton, the former four-star All-American could aspire to be Darnold’s number-one threat on the outside next season.
Steven Mitchell Jr.
Redshirt senior Steven Mitchell Jr. is a wildcard. He is coming off his second torn ACL while at USC in 2016, but prior to his season-ending injury last year, Mitchell had racked up 226 receiving yards and one touchdown in seven games (three starts) in the slot. Though Burnett’s subsequent emergence at the position could cut down Mitchell’s opportunities, the fourth-year wideout has caught 68 passes for seven scores during his Trojan career, and Helton may find use for Mitchell’s veteran savvy.
… And everyone else
Of course, you can never really predict who will emerge to lead a transitioning receiving corps. Much like how Smith-Schuster burst onto the scene as a freshman in 2014 (back then as just “JuJu Smith”), someone from Helton’s heralded 2017 recruiting class could come in and make an immediate impact. Trojan fans salivate at the prospect of watching L.A. native Joseph Lewis spearhead the Trojan air attack for the next three years alongside his Hawkins High School teammate Greg Johnson—both of whom committed on National Signing Day last month as top-10 players at their position (Lewis was the top wide receiver in his class).
Someone like Michael Pittman Jr. could also seize a bigger role after a promising freshman campaign. A host of receivers are finishing their redshirt years along with Josh Imatorbhebhe, including Tyler Vaughns and Velus Jones Jr., and Helton has spoken highly of them since they first arrived on campus last year. Or who knows? Maybe junior Ronald Jones II will end his Trojan career with a historic rushing season and turn the USC passing attack into a sideshow.
But at the end of the day, USC’s championship hopes likely rest on Sam Darnold’s shoulders. If players such as Burnett and Mitchell cannot provide him with consistent targets, the program could struggle to meet lofty expectations once again. But thankfully for Trojan fans, if Burnett’s Rose Bowl performance was any indication, he and the rest of the squad believe they can rise to any challenge.