What happens to the USC offense if Burnett is out of action in this or any future USC football game?
Roughly one out of every three passes (a little over 30%) Sam Darnold has thrown this year have been to Burnett. Compare this number to the incredible Juju Smith-Schuster who was only targeted on about 24% of passes last season.
Even more concerning is that Darnold has targeted Burnett more than twice as often as the second and third most targeted receivers Steven Mitchell Jr. and tight end Tyler Petite. Burnett has roughly three times the amount of targets as Darnold’s fourth-most targeted pass catcher—running back Stephen Carr who has 15 targets on the year. Carr is currently USC’s third most productive receiver this season which he managed to accomplish in his spare time when he wasn’t busy being one of two work horse running backs for the Trojans offense.
After Stephen Carr however, things look a little bleak at the WR position. Jalen Greene and Tyler Vaughns have both been targeted 11 times but after that, there’s a steep drop-off.
Velus Jones Jr. has four targets, Ronald Jones II three (though he’s certainly made them count), Aca’Cedric Ware and Michael Pittman Jr. two targets a piece and finally Joseph Lewis IV, Daniel Imatorbhebhe, Erik Krommenhoek, Trevon Sidney, Cary Angeline, and Vavae Malepeai have each been targeted one time in four games.
The highly touted and incredibly talented freshmen and sophomore wide receivers have not exactly had much opportunity to get experience with the exception of Tyler Vaughns.
Jones, Pittman, Lewis, Imatorbhebhe, Krommenhoek, Sidney, and Angeline have a combined six catches on 11 targets for 63 yards. Vaughns has eight catches on 11 targets for 65 yards. In fact, of the 16 different players Darnold has thrown to, Burnett has five more targets than the bottom 12 combined and about seven more catches as well.
Seriously, remember these guys?
Simply put, the ball distribution in the passing game is awfully myopic. With Steven Mitchell Jr. injured, things get a lot worse. Frankly, this offense right now either by choice or circumstance is short-handed.
About 65% of all of USC’s offensive plays from the line of scrimmage this season have gone to either Rojo, Carr, Mitchell, or Burnett—with 58% going to just just Burnett, Rojo, and Carr. This makes creating a defensive game plan to stop the Trojans awfully easy if the entirety of the offense is RB + Burnett.
Is it any surprise then that the USC offense has begun to sputter, Darnold’s passing numbers have dropped and it is increasingly difficult to get the run game going? Should we really be shocked that Darnold’s performance almost seems disappointing when compared to 2016?
The 2016 USC offense was STACKED with tons of pass catchers
In 2016 Darnold had Juju Smith-Schuster, Darreus Rogers, and Deontay Burnett stretching defensive backfields impossibly thin leaving them mathematically incapable of committing enough defensive backs to stop all three of those elite wide outs.
Even if opposing defenses could contain Smith-Schuster, Rogers, and Burnett (unlikely, but possible) they still had to find ways to contend with Daniel Imatorbhebhe, Justin Davis, Taylor McNamara, De’Quan Hampton, and of course the omnipresent threat of a deep strike to Adoree’ Jackson. Even if you could withstand all of that for even a few seconds each play Darnold’s scrambling and improvisational abilities were more than adequate to allow someone to get open.
Darnold looked awfully sharp, the passing game was next to impossible to stop for a full 60 minutes and nobody minded a few errant throws or bad decisions resulting in interceptions because they could just get right back to throwing touchdown passes. With that many weapons at receiver just getting the ball in the air was usually enough.
It worked so well because Juju, Rogers, and eventually Burnett absorbed most— sometimes all of the attention of opposing defensive backs and frequently it still wasn’t enough to stop them. The Trojans passing game had three players that legitimately needed to be defended by more than one player and obviously defenses were not going to use over half of their players to try and stop three receivers.
Darnold was largely tasked with finding the receiver that wasn’t blanketed, and if it was not there then scramble and buy time or check down to any number of solid and emerging options like Justin Davis, RoJo, McNamara, Imatorbhebhe, Petite and so on.
It worked really well, in a curious way it almost operated as a toned down spread-offense. That much receiving talent would almost always ensure a favorable matchup for Darnold to throw to and if it wasn’t there he could move the pocket until he found something he liked.
This also provided younger players like Imatorbhebhe, Pittman, and Petite to be slowly worked into the rotation and gain familiarity with Darnold and the speed of the college game without much pressure and converted WR Jalen Greene could be used as more of a double pass gadget player while he learned his new position without being required to do too much.
And if that was not enough the 2016 offense could also supplement these players with running backs as receiving threats and even bring in Adoree’ Jackson as a deep threat (decoy or otherwise) to stretch out the defense vertically. In short, the passing game had more than enough weapons and options no matter what the opposing defense threw at them. In short it was just too much talent to contain and all they needed was a confident QB with a hyper-competitive mindset to make the whole thing run. Sam Darnold was perfect for the job.
New consistent passing threats will emerge for USC or they will become either Notre Dame or Clemson
Here is the reality, sooner or later Deontay Burnett may get injured and miss a game, have an off the field issue, or an opposing defense will find a way to keep him truly neutralized. If, or perhaps, when that happens, and opposing defenses are still taking away the run by crashing the box then what happens to the USC offense?
If Burnett goes down so does half of their offensive formula. That could be absolutely disastrous for the Trojans. Or it could also be a blessing in disguise if it forces all of the other receivers to step up without the Burnett crutch propping them up and likewise Sam will not be able to force it to Burnett any longer.
If this formula does not change, however, and this is just who USC is this season then they will continue to find themselves in extremely tight games week after week after week. Two teams found themselves in a similar position in 2016 and they could not have realistically finished any farther apart. Notre Dame and Clemson both had 8 games in 2016 that were incredibly tight. The Irish finished 4-8. Clemson won the National Championship.
If USC’s identity in 2017 is a team constantly in tight games with plenty of late game drama then lets hope that Darnold and company are more DeShaun Watson and less Brian Kelly. Hopefully it will not come to that and new credible receiving threats emerge allowing the Trojans to get back to the 2016 style passing attack combined with a running game that can take over a game. That is a USC formula that can compete with and beat anyone in the country. Otherwise the Trojans are walking a very fine line between Notre Dame and Clemson.