Earlier this week it was announced that junior wide receiver Steven Mitchell Jr. is ruled out for the rest of the season with a torn ACL suffered in the game against Arizona. This is a terrible break for a player that has suffered multiple lower leg injuries throughout his Trojan career. The entire USC family is wishing the speedster a healthy recovery.
In regards to how this will impact his team, Mitchell’s injury is damaging to the offense, but the Trojans have talented players who can make an impact in his stead. Over the first seven games, Mitchell racked up 24 catches for 226 yards and a touchdown. His likely replacement, Deontay Burnett, has 23 catches for 229 yards and two touchdowns.
Mitchell and Burnett are both slot receivers that primarily use their quickness and agility to get open and make plays. Although their skillsets are largely redundant, offensive coordinator Tee Martin has utilized both in certain play calls. However, now that Mitchell is done for the season, the Trojans will likely lean solely on Burnett to operate out of the slot.
Losing a talented playmaker like Mitchell is usually something that can change a team’s offensive game plan. Thankfully, Burnett’s presence gives USC almost a like-for-like replacement who has possibly even eclipsed Mitchell’s production in only his second season. As a true sophomore, Burnett could have an extremely bright future in front of him and Mitchell’s injury could open the door for the Compton native to cement his place as the team’s primary underneath option.
Another huge reason why USC can overcome Mitchell’s injury is Sam Darnold’s ability to spread the ball around to multiple receivers. It is important to have a quality slot receiver who can be effective on short routes, but having a quarterback that gives chances to multiple players is almost as important.
Previously quarterback Cody Kessler was infamous for locking on to one receiver (usually JuJu Smith-Schuster) which limited the opportunities for others. Darnold, on the other hand, does a great job of utilizing all of his weapons. The Trojans have dynamic athletes at skill positions that know how to get open. This has been a staple of USC for years, but the difference now is that if somebody is open, Darnold will take advantage.
A perfect example is USC’s tight end usage since Darnold earned the starting job. The Trojans have two great pass-catching tight ends in Daniel Imatorbhebhe and Tyler Petite. Since basically the departure of Pete Carroll, USC quarterbacks have done a very poor job of utilizing the tight end (Xavier Grimble would be the one possible exception). That is changing with Darnold under center. Imatorbhebhe has two touchdown catches in the last two weeks as he has emerged as a legitimate red-zone threat. Petite has also become a great weapon down the seam with an outstanding 17 yard average per reception.
Both Imatorbhebhe and Petite are extremely athletic for their 6’4” and 6’5” frames giving the Trojans two dynamic playmakers for Darnold to target. The young quarterback has certainly taken advantage, leading to more opportunities for both particularly in the red zone. Now that Mitchell is done for the season, their playing time will surely increase particularly in the slot.
Petite and Imatorbhebhe are matchup nightmares for a defense as most safeties are not big enough and most linebackers do not have the speed to keep up. Allowing these two tight ends to line up in the slot will cause headaches for opposing defensive coordinators as either player should have no problem getting open. USC’s next game against Cal could be a great opportunity for this adjustment to come into play as the Bears just gave up a combined 137 yards and two touchdowns to Oregon’s slot receiver and tight end.
Losing a starting player to a season ending injury almost always forces a slight adjustment in play calling. However, the result of Steven Mitchell’s injury may turn out to be a positive in the long term. A bigger role for a promising young receiver in Deontay Burnett and a situation that forces Tee Martin to lean on his tight ends are two developments that may end up improving the USC offense. Unlike the last starting quarterback for the Trojans, Darnold does a great job of getting the ball to open receivers. This plus the ensuing personnel adjustments should allow the USC offense to easily overcome Mitchell’s season ending injury.