Receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster will forgo his senior season at USC to declare for the NFL Draft, Smith-Schuster announced on Twitter on Saturday evening, becoming the Trojans’ second early departure following its Rose Bowl victory this week.
Guard Damien Mama announced Friday he would enter the draft. Cornerback Adoree’ Jackson, another potential early draft entrant, has yet to announce his intentions.
“This was a very difficult decision to make,” Smith-Schuster said. “I have loved my time at USC and wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.”
Smith-Schuster is considered a possible first-round pick, which would mean a multi-million-dollar contract. The decision was not a surprise.
But his departure creates an unmistakable void for a team many expect to contend for a spot in the College Football Playoff. Smith-Schuster often drew double-teams, which opened the field for USC’s other options. USC also lost Darreus Rogers, who was a senior. Combined with Smith-Schuster, the pair provided 45% of USC’s receiving yardage and 42% of its touchdown catches.
Deontay Burnett, who caught three touchdown passes in USC’s Rose Bowl victory, will become the Trojans’ returning leader in receptions, yardage and touchdowns.
USC has a wealth of other young options at receiver, including Michael Pittman Jr., who saw limited time as a freshman, and redshirt freshmen Tyler Vaughns and Josh Imatorbhebhe, who were highly regarded high school prospects. Quarterback Sam Darnold prefers to diversity his receiving targets, but so far, no single option has shown he is capable of replicating Smith-Schuster’s production.
Smith-Schuster said he was “confident this program is in a great place and can soon bring home a national championship.”
Smith-Schuster was among the best receivers in the nation in the 2015 season, when he caught 89 passes for 1,454 yards and 10 touchdowns and was named a consensus second-team All-American. His production dipped last season, because of a combination of double-teams, injuries and Darnold’s tendency to spread the ball around. Smith-Schuster still caught 70 passes for 914 yards and 10 touchdowns.
He became a sensation for eye-popping plays, such as when he called out a Utah defensive back after catching a ball in a 2015 game, then stiff-armed him to the ground. In the Rose Bowl game against Penn State, he caught a touchdown and made a crucial diving catch along the sideline in the final minutes to set up USC’s game-tying score. It would be his last reception at USC.
Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand