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Stanford receiver Arcega-Whiteside presents a unique challenge for Trojans defensive backs

USC coach Clay Helton noticed something poignant about JJ Arcega-Whiteside when watching film of the Stanford wide receiver’s dominant performance last week against San Diego State.

“You know when you get inside the 10-yard line, the fade is coming,” Helton said. “There was one time it looked like a basketball post-up. He looked like a power forward and went up and made the play.”

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Helton made the observation casually, almost offhand. It was unclear if he actually knew that Arcega-Whiteside was a McDonald’s All-America nominee in 2014 as a basketball prep star in Dorman, S.C., or that both of Arcega-Whiteside’s parents, Joaquin Arcega and Valerie Whiteside, played professional basketball in Europe, or that two of his uncles played for Spain in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.

Arcega-Whiteside was a three-star football recruit, but you wouldn’t have known it last Friday night when he caught six passes for 226 yards and three touchdowns in a 31-10 Stanford win. His performance in dismantling the Aztecs was the equivalent of a triple-double with a posterizing dunk for emphasis.

Stanford under David Shaw has not been known for big numbers in the passing game, but this year’s team brings a more explosive element on the outside with KJ Costello, a quarterback USC recruited heavily, passing to the 6-foot-3, 222-pound Arcega-Whiteside.

USC defensive backs coach Ronnie Bradford said that most college teams are using big-bodied receivers in jump ball-type situations when they get the right matchups. But with Stanford, he assumes the Cardinal don’t see it as a “50-50 ball.”

“They’re thinking that, hey, 75% of the things that happen are going to be positive,” Bradford said. “We’re either going to get an incompletion, we’re going to get a pass interference, or we’ll get a catch. The only negative is an interception. The odds are in their favor. They’re gonna throw it out there and just see what happens.”

After Bryce Love’s Heisman Trophy runner-up showing in 2017, Stanford knew that teams were going to go all-in to stop the run. But San Diego State took it to an extreme in holding him to 29 yards in 18 carries, setting up a scenario where the Cardinal had no choice but to “resort to the passing game,” as Helton put it.

“They literally had 10 guys in the box,” Stanford wide receiver Osiris St. Brown said of the Aztecs. “We said our receivers are one-on-one, we might as well just start throwing it. JJ was unstoppable. It gave our offense more confidence.”

USC isn’t going into Saturday thinking about picking a poison, so to speak. The Trojans believe in their plan, and they will try to dictate the flow, not be reactive.

Senior cornerback Iman Marshall came back to USC for matchups like the potential showdown with Arcega-Whiteside, but neither Marshall nor his coaches indicated he would be shadowing him.

The Trojans practiced jump-ball scenarios this week using Devon Williams and Randal Grimes, who both are 6-4.

“Him attacking the ball, him being able to go vertical and attack the ball at the highest point, that’s what his strength is,” Marshall said of Arcega-Whiteside. “We’ve got great schemes to help eliminate that.”

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Executing under pressure

USC quarterback JT Daniels has to be prepared for his time in the pocket to be cut short Saturday, Helton said.

With Toa Lobendahn and Chuma Edoga battling back from injuries, USC’s offensive line will operate at a disadvantage, even though Helton is confident in the position group’s depth. Stanford had a sack and a fumble recovery against San Diego State, and Helton praised the team’s passing pressure.

Lingering in the pocket could risk a poor play or even an injury, Helton said, making Saturday a test for the freshman.

“We’re gonna have to run crisp routes against man coverage, we’re gonna have to keep the quarterback upright in protection, and then the quarterback can’t flinch,” Helton said. “He can’t hesitate versus this bunch, because they won’t be open long.”

Etc.

Helton held back Lobendahn (shoulder) and limited activity for Edoga (leg) and Austin Jackson (knee) to give them extra rest in hopes that they will be ready Saturday.

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