- Adam Rittenberg, College Football
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LOS ANGELES -- You'll know when the USC Trojans officially conquer the numbers game. They will be able to lose a great player, perhaps two, and either maintain production or elevate it.
The Trojans wide receivers could be the guinea pigs this season.
USC's receiving corps lost a great player in Nelson Agholor, an All-American who recorded 104 receptions (third most in team history) for 1,313 yards and 12 touchdowns. Also gone via early draft entry is George Farmer, who, while never reaching his ceiling because of injuries, finished fourth on the team with 24 catches last season. Coupled with the loss of versatile running back Buck Allen (41 receptions, 458 yards), and USC finds itself in precisely the type of situation that has caused problems in the post-NCAA sanctions era.
But Trojans coaches and receivers are confident that fewer proven targets will push the passing game off the mark.
"It's shaping up to be a very good group," wide receivers coach Tee Martin said. "It’s still not where we want it to be from a depth standpoint, but the group we have, they understand the responsibilities."
USC might lack a headliner like Agholor -- sophomore JuJu Smith certainly could claim that role after a 54-catch freshman season -- but Martin sees balance that reminds him of the 2012 group, which featured Biletnikoff Award winner Marqise Lee, Robert Woods and Agholor. There's speed with Smith and sophomore Steven Mitchell, who had a breakout spring, versatility with Ajene Harris and experience with Darreus Rogers. Then there's Adoree' Jackson, the magnetic cornerback/returner who spent much of spring practice working with the offense.
"We'll be really deep," Smith said. "You only can cover so many dudes at once. Somebody's always open."
It seemed like everybody was open at a recent practice as the offense, despite light rain, repeatedly attacked downfield. Mitchell had the biggest day but many others got into the pass-catching party, including Jackson, whose absence from the secondary undoubtedly stung.
"I was just glad I was on the offensive side that day," Jackson said. "The quarterback has so many targets to throw the ball to, it’s like, 'Who you gonna stick?' You might lock up two receivers but they've still got two more who can get open."
Afterward, coach Steve Sarkisian quoted Al Davis' theory about attempting two deep passes per quarter. Although USC isn't wedded to eight downfield shots per game, it wants to increase its big-play ability. The Trojans tied for 50th (sixth in the Pac-12) in pass plays of 25 yards or longer with 28 last season.
Offensive coordinator Clay Helton is hopeful Smith can follow the line of Agholor, Woods and Lee as USC's No. 1 target, adding Smith "has that type of talent." Like the others, Smith played significantly as a true freshman, which Martin likens to simply surviving.
"You've got to be able to go from being a survivor to being a dominator," Martin said. "How you become a dominator is by detail. That's where we challenge JuJu."
Mitchell could be Smith's primary complement in the slot position despite only seven catches last season. Rated by ESPN RecruitingNation as the 11th best receiver in the 2013 class, Mitchell tore multiple ligaments in his right knee during an voluntary workout at USC in June before his freshman season.
Fully recovered, Mitchell sparkled this spring. Quarterback Cody Kessler called him the team's most consistent receiver during practices.
"He saw what Nelson did last year, he saw what two years Marquis Lee did at that position," Martin said, "and he realizes it's his time to show people what he's been working so hard for."
Jackson could add flavor to an already delicious stew of wideouts, or he could become a full-on ingredient. The sophomore stiff-arms specialization, excelling whether he's covering receivers, returning kickoffs and now doing long jumps and relays for USC's track team.
Before a recent interview he joked, "They're gassing me," before describing the "perfect situation" he's in, being able to do it all. After Jackson scored on three of 10 receptions in 2014, the coaches acknowledged they didn't use him enough. So he devoted full practices to offense this spring, participating in every receiver drill and learning how to block.
The goal, Martin said, is to prevent opposing defenses from spotting Jackson and expecting him to take them to the ball every time. But he's going to get his touches.
"As special a player as we've had," said Helton, who thinks Jackson could soon master the entire offensive playbook. "You can rank him up there with Woody [Robert Woods] and Marqise, Nelson and Buck. He's just one of those guys that every time he has the ball, you hold your breath.
Losing elite players like Agholor used to short-circuit undermanned USC teams. The wide receivers must show that they can keep the power lines on all season long.
The USC Trojans now have depth at wide receiver, and there are playmakers from top to bottom.