Amon-Ra St. Brown will be a problem
The receiving unit for the USC Trojans is stacked. It has gotten to the point where offensive coordinator Graham Harrell has had to increase his own standards for receiver play. Still, Amon-Ra St. Brown has distinguished himself as the best player in this elite receiving unit. St. Brown has elite route running skills, great hands, and the ability to separate either through his speed or his strength.
He’s bulked up, though this has not yet affected his speed or route-running. It seems as though he runs past the defense for a long gain any practice, no matter who is defending him. In addition to his strength and route-running, St. Brown has exceptional hands, telling reporters that he catches 200 balls after each practice, only dropping a few.
There’s something to be said about being both a great player and a great leader. On the practice field, St. Brown consistently puts in 100 percent effort. He makes clean cuts and finishes every play, displaying an impressive level of effort and leadership.
Last season, St. Brown lead the team in receptions (60), but was second in yard (750), and third in touchdowns (3). This coming season, expect for Harrell to dial up some long balls for St. Brown. His receiving ability on all three levels should allow St. Brown to lead the team in yard, and his great hands should give St. Brown more red-zone opportunities as well.
JT Daniels has “real” competition at the quarterback position
Standing alongside the practice fields during spring camp, there is a palpable feeling in the air that JT Daniels will remain as the starter in 2019. Daniels carries himself around practice as though his job is well-cemented, and it may be. Though Harrell has officially declared an open competition at the quarterback position, it seems inevitable that Daniels will ultimately win the job.
Daniels has more arm strength, experience, and chemistry than the competing quarterbacks. The thing is, Daniels’ weaknesses do not tend to come out during a practice setting. His lack of pocket presence is a non-issue during practice, when he has a non-contact jersey on and defender are not allowed to tackle him. He cannot learn to throw under pressure when the pressure around him is fake, and not immediate. His off-and-on ball placement and penchant for throwing untimely interceptions is hard to pinpoint as the Trojans have injuries and depth issues at defensive back. His fumbling issues have been apparent as Harrell and Co. have batted at the ball during footwork drills, but even then, there have been few improved signs of ball security since the start of spring camp.
There may be some Max Browne comparisons to be made here. In 2016, Max Browne and Sam Darnold performed about equally in practice, and Browne, the incumbent, was named as starter. Darnold eventually won the starting gig because of his ability to extend plays and win outside of the structure of the offense, which coaches could not measure in practice. Practice is a poor setting to expose Daniels’ poor play when under real pocket pressure.
This is not to say that Matt Fink, Kedon Slovis, or Jack Sears are Sam Darnold. They must show their capabilities to earn the job, and none have shown significantly more than Daniels.
Perhaps real game action is the only way for coaches to truly evaluate the quarterback position.
Devon Williams is ready to break out
Last season, St. Brown, Tyler Vaughns, and Michael Pittman Jr. all had over 55 receptions and 650 yards. This is impressive, though Harrell’s system often uses four receiver sets. It has been Devon Williams who has been the favorite to star as a fourth receiver. On the field, Williams’ physical traits are evident. He is listed at 6-foot-4, but he is significantly taller than Pittman Jr., who is also listed at 6-foot-5. Williams has fluid speed and is one of the faster players on the Trojan roster. On top of that, he has received guidance from Pittman Jr. That’s not a bad mentor to have.
The reality of USC receivers it that there are so many elite ones, and that they will naturally have to fight for playing time and targets. This next season, Williams will be competing with four-star recruit Joshua Jackson, as well as five-star Kyle Ford, for playing time as the fourth receiver. Though Ford and Jackson are freshmen and Ford is recovering from a torn ACL, Williams may have his hands full.
But because of his experience, size, and speed, Williams seems poised for a breakout year. At the very least, I would bet the house that he improves on his 87 yards and one touchdown accumulated in 2018.