Are the USC Trojans too reliant on Juju Smith-Schuster?
Change is in the air in southern California — it’s Clay Helton’s first full season as head coach and his first working with a staff of his own choosing. It’s also the first time in three years that USC has needed to find a new starting quarterback, with redshirt junior Max Browne and redshirt freshman Sam Darnold fighting for the right to succeed Cody Kessler. Regardless of who wins that competition, the offense will have a different feel. The question lies with the passing game — will the Trojans continue to lean heavily on wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster? And if so, can they succeed against a daunting schedule?
The stats from 2015 show just how reliant USC was on their top offensive player. Smith-Schuster had 89 receptions (next highest was WR Steven Mitchell Jr. with 37), 1454 yards (CB/WR Adoree’ Jackson was second on the team with 414) and 10 touchdowns (Mitchell Jr. and TE Taylor McNamara tied for second with four apiece). That’s 28.8 percent of receptions, 38.5 percent of the teams receiving yards, and a third of their receiving TDs. In total, 31.2 percent of all targeted passes were aimed towards Smith-Schuster.
If an offense is going to be so focused one player, they had better be very good, and Smith-Schuster certainly fits the bill. He was highly productive on a per-snap basis, averaging 3.39 yards per route run, seventh-best among returning WRs. Although typically sure handed, his drop rate (quite simply the rate at which he dropped catchable passes) rose from a good 3.57 in 2014, to a less impressive 9.18 in 2015, but Smith-Schuster needed offseason surgery for a fractured hand he suffered in Week 9 against Cal, and seven of his nine drops came after that injury. Smith-Schuster has the speed and route running to get separation against most college corners, and even when he doesn’t get clear, he has the strength and body control to complete the catch anyway. The play below shows Smith-Schuster completing a difficult catch against former Notre Dame CB KeiVarae Russell (a third-round draft pick for the Kansas City Chiefs in 2016).
Smith-Schuster has to turn towards Russell to make the catch and initially gets two hands on the ball. Russell is able to disrupt things, ripping Smith-Schuster’s left hand free from the ball, but even one-handed, Smith Schuster is able to maintain firm control throughout.
Smith-Schuster is talented enough that an overreliance on him will be fine against many teams. However, the Trojans 2016 schedule throws up several talented defenses who can deal with a one-dimensional passing attack – if they can limit Smith-Schuster, who will step up? They open with a neutral field game against Alabama, the defending national champions, and go on the road to face Stanford and Utah in back-to-back weeks, all in the month of September. They also have to travel to face a rising Washington program, and their local rival UCLA, before finishing the campaign at home to Notre Dame.
The ground attack should be just fine with Justin Davis (+20.5 rushing grade) and Ronald Jones II (+15.3 rushing grade) offering an impressive one-two punch. But, to navigate that schedule successfully, the Trojans are going to have to spread the ball around a little more. There are three established options to do just that.
Firstly, former four-star recruit Darreus Rogers started opposite Smith-Schuster in 2015 and will likely return in that role as a senior, but has yet to break 300 receiving yards in a single season. His productivity will need to rise dramatically if he’s to live up to his billing, he’s averaged just 1.13 yards per route run over the past two years, though if the offense was geared towards targeting Smith-Schuster, that may be artificially low.
Secondly, slot receiver Mitchell who has struggled with injuries over the past two seasons, but has flashed the potential to do better than he has – much was expected of him in 2015. And to round out the group, starting corner Adoree’ Jackson has dabbled on offense to great effect. Because he starts on defense, there is a limit to how much snaps Jackson can play, but he was easily Trojans most dynamic receiver when he did feature on offense. An electric returner, Jackson forced a frankly ridiculous 15 missed tackles on just 27 receptions, and averaged an excellent 3.73 yards per route run. Outside of those three, De’Quan Hampton, Isaac Whitney, Deontay Burnett and the fit again Ajene Harris are the most likely to step up, but with a combined 37 career receptions between them, none are obvious breakout stars.
Given that Jackson missed spring practice to chase an Olympic spot as a long jumper, and also needs training time to focus on his primary position, it’s possible that his role on offense will be reduced in 2016, rather than expanded. That would rob USC of a big-play threat, and could leave them over reliant on the talents of Smith-Schuster once again.