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Where Hast Thou Gone, USC Tight Ends?

Tell us when you've heard this one: The Trojans should utilize their tight ends more. Oh, sorry you weren't stopped. The numbers of their usage in USC's passing attack this season are broken down.

Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

In three games, the Steve Sarkisian-USC marriage has already presented the highest of highs (crushing Fresno State opening weekend and edging out Stanford on the road) and lowest of lows (last weekend) that no Trojan supporter wanted to experience so quickly.

Saturday had shades of the 2012 Arizona game except that the team didn't screw itself over by losing within the Pac-12. But maybe it was worse? The 2012 contest actually featured more moments in which 'SC shot itself in the foot whereas Boston College flat-out owned the line of scrimmage. (Both games did include a game-changing incomplete, surefire touchdown pass. Hold on to that.)

Nevertheless a handful of differences are clear that would indicate that the new boss is not, in fact, the same as the old boss. Let's gloss over a handful of them.

  • An offense more capable of dynamism.
  • Even if it's out of a necessity, no fear in using freshman in large
  • The creativity well is not only being tapped into, but actually has some semblance of how college football offenses should work in 2014.
  • The tight ends have finally been introduced into the passing game.

Oh wait! That last point was a bold-faced lie (sorry, please forgive me).

For some reason, despite recruiting prime talent at the position, it seems like that giant, athletic pass-catchers have been allergic to USC's offense. Not to its success or detriment, necessarily -- just the act of getting them involved seems like a pain in the ass. All. The. Time. In all fairness, though, what team in the country would possible want to have this as an element to its aerial assault?

So far, since Xavier Grimble has been 86'd from the tight-end corps after leaving early to enter the NFL Draft, not much has changed. Through three games, redshirt senior Randall Telfer and freshman Bryce Dixon have not seen a ton of work to say the least, continuing to draw the ire of couch offensive coordinators -- with good reason, though.

Obviously missing Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick, in what was supposed to be a breakout campaign, hurts. And senior walk-on Chris Willson. But Telfer is a veteran who's flashed physicality and athleticism from time to time -- he should be an impact player.

When the ball has gotten into Dixon's hands, it's been a marvel seeing an 18-year-old book it. But he's not quite there, as exhibited by a game-changing drop against BC, one that almost assuredly would have gone for six and changed the game.

First, let's take a look at passes attempted to both of these players in the first three contests in addition to the percentage of Cody Kessler passes tossed their way. (Note: These stats are via the football team's website. Target stats aren't listed on the official statistics, so I pulled the numbers from the play-by-play record.)

Week 1 vs. Fresno State

Telfer Dixon Total QB atts. % of targets to TEs
Targets 0 3 3 37 8.11

Week 2 vs. Stanford

Telfer Dixon Total QB atts. % of targets to TEs
Targets 0 2 2 22 9.09

Week 3 vs. Boston College

Telfer Dixon Total QB atts. % of targets to TEs
Targets 3 2 5 41 12.2

Want to throw it back to 2012, you say? Firstly: Why, you sadist? Secondly: Fine. Here's a similar breakdown in the first three game of Matt Barkley's final season in which he threw to Telfer, Grimble and a pair of random folks named Marqise Lee and Robert Woods.

2012 Week 1 vs. Hawaii

Grimble Telfer Total QB atts. % of targets to TEs
Targets 2 1 3 41 7.32

2012 Week 2 vs. Syracuse

Grimble Telfer Total QB atts. % of targets to TEs
Targets 3 3 6 30 20

2012 Week 3 vs. Stanford

Grimble Telfer Total QB atts. % of targets to TEs
Targets 1 6 7 41 17.07

Now, Nelson Agholor is good at the footballing thing. But the receiver corps isn't nearly as accomplished as the one Barkley had, nor is Kessler as seasoned as the then-four-year starter. So, in considering football clichés, as the tight end is typically considered a safety blanket, one would think they would be targeted more frequently with a greener signal-caller.

For the sake of comparison and schadenfreude, in the 2012 Stanford contest, Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo were targeted a total of 15 times by Josh Nunes, who shuttled 46.88% of his throws to the tight end duo. It's not fair to compare any other tight end's production vs. the Cardinal machine.

But if they're the gold standard, then it's reasonable to expect and demand a number closer to 20% of the QB's attempts going to the large, sometimes plodding weapons in the passing game.

While Sarkisian's offense is straight out of 2007 and Stanford coach David Shaw's is mostly out of 1907, possessing and releasing one dominant tight end in the passing game is a distinct competitive advantage, as there are so few great ones. If you look to the pros, every team would die to have Jimmy Graham for his unfair blend of freakish measurable and strong hands.

It's been a habitual problem since Fred Davis leaped to the draft. Jordan Cameron is a poor man's Graham, and even he just mustered a meager 16 grabs, 126 yards and a touchdown while seeing time in 12 games at USC. Growing pains were expected for whoever filled the head-coaching vacancy in Southland last December.

While history shows that Sark can unleash someone, say Austin Seferian-Jenkins at Washington (146 catches, 1,840 yards, 21 TDs in three seasons), the early dividends have not made it easy to buy that reality. He also has plenty of highly touted toys at receiver to play with, perhaps wanting to exploit game-breaking speed given his "play fast" creed. Given how the offensive line was handled by the Boston College Eagles, there are more pressing matters for USC's season, but the tight end's role in the offense is a flashing sign that could go for a re-evaluation.

What is there to lose?