The USC Trojans struggled on special teams last season. Kick returns were faint and field flipping plays had been rare, but with a top five recruiting class and healthy returners coming in, John Baxter’s unit is set to improve their numbers.
True freshman Chase McGrath went from walk-on to starter last season for the Trojans.
After incumbent redshirt freshman Michael Brown tore ligaments in his left knee during the game against Stanford, USC was down to McGrath as their only kicker on roster. With the historic rematch against the Texas Longhorns looming, there was no other option than for the freshman out of Mater Dei to step up.
McGrath went on to kick the game winning 43-yard field goal against Texas and was 12-17 on the season with a long of 51 yards. He was 58-59 in PAT’s and had 19 touchbacks. A groin injury hindered the tail end of his season but he will be returning healthy and ready to compete to keep his starting position.
McGrath heads into camp now on scholarship and riding the back of a successful season for a former freshman walk-on. There will be an open competition at the position between McGrath and Brown but unless the play is completely lop sided, I predict McGrath will hold onto his starting spot.
Redshirt sophomore Brown will more than likely be the No. 2 guy heading into the first game of the season. Though if McGrath’s accuracy falters I don’t see Clay Helton hesitating to replace him with Brown.
Before his injury during the 2017 season, Brown recorded nine kicked offs, two pinning rivals inside the 20 yard line and three touchbacks. Brown did not attempt any placement kicks during his short time on the field but I expect him to return to practice and give McGrath a run for his money.
Players to Watch
While there are no true freshman outliers to watch for this position, I would keep an eye on the battle between McGrath and Brown.
Coming off a season ending injury will likely have lit a fire under the now healthy Brown and while this position is hardly as glamorous as some, the battle that will take place during fall camp will be interesting to watch.
The punting squad will also host an open competition heading into fall camp. Last year’s walk-on starter Reid Budrovich comes into fall camp as the incumbent, but Helton has shown that he is not afraid to start the player with the best camp performance.
Last year, Budrovich emerged as the starting punter after beating out then redshirt junior incumbent Chris Tilbey during fall camp.
Last season Budrovich recorded 55 punts averaging 41.6 yards. He was able to pin 23 opponents within the 20-yard line, 11 traveling at least 50 yards with a long of 63. He also served as the place kicker on kickoffs.
Budrovich recorded 11 kickoffs, eight touchbacks, and pinned three opponents within the 20-yard line. He also had two tackles, including this monster against UCLA.
Budrovich ended the season with USC’s Joe Collins Walk-On Award and a scholarship under his belt.
Tilbey returns as a redshirt senior and will battle Budrovich for the starting position in 2018. While he was beat out last season, Tilbey does have experience of his own as he held the starting job during the 2016 season.
He played in all 13 games for USC in 2016 and recorded 50 punts, averaging 38.3 yards. He was able to pin opponents inside the 20-yard line on 18 of his 50 punts. Only eight were returned that season with 20 being fair catches.
Tilbey hails from the ‘land down under’ and has a experience in Australian Rules Football. This style is making a surge in the college world, with Utah and Texas featuring some of the best Australian punters these past few years. This style is something USC has never featured before Tilbey joined their ranks, but I’m sure fans and myself included would not mind seeing how it could benefit the Trojans this season.
Players to Watch
Like the kicker position there are no incoming freshman to keep an eye on for punters. Though like the battle between McGrath and Brown, the two experienced punters on roster will once again face competition in each other during fall camp.
It is safe to say that the USC kick return game was a far cry from the edge of your seat play the Trojans had with now Tennessee Titan Adoree Jackson.
In 2017 USC averaged 24.7 yards per carry with Velus Jones Jr. who recorded 31 kickoff returns and a total of 760 yards. Jones did not scamper for any touchdowns last season and the Trojan return game though not dire, was definitely lack luster.
While USC may be looking for a more explosive player to field returns, Jones will most likely be the No. 1 guy come the first game of the season.
Ajene Harris, USC’s starting nickel back, also saw action as a return man in 2017. He recorded 14 punt returns, averaging 5.1 yards with a season total of 72 yards. While the Trojans may still use Harris on punts, I predict that Helton will turn to one of the talented incoming freshman to see if one of them can bring back some Jackson-like explosiveness.
Players to Watch
Incoming five-star wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown would be a perfect fit to try and light up the kick return play.
It’s no secret that the Trojans are loaded right now at wide receiver and while St. Brown may very well see playing time at his position, sending him to field kicks would provide just another chance to gain some experience and touchdowns.
To make the case even stronger for St. Brown on special teams is the clip below of a punt St. Brown fielded during his senior year of high school at Mater Dei. He ran an impressive 90 yards for a touchdown against J Serra, something USC hasn’t seen since Jackson left for the NFL after the 2016 season.
Whether USC even decides to test out either St. Brown or Isaac Taylor-Stuart has yet to be determined but Trojan fans should not be surprised to see the true freshmen out on the field for John Baxter next season.