Whenever a pass is thrown at Erik McKee, the USC tight end reasons that he'd better catch it because it's a long wait between receptions.
McKee plays a peculiar position. Most of the time, he's a blocking lineman. But every once in a while he becomes a receiver.
"It's usually a pattern eight yards in depth in which I curl right over the center," McKee said. "I'm not accustomed to catching a lot of balls, but the ones that come to me I usually catch."
McKee has caught a dozen passes for 115 yards this season. He's identified as a possession-type receiver, one responsible for getting a first down, usually on third and short. The deep routes are for the wide receivers.
But McKee, 6 feet 4 inches and 245 pounds, isn't frustrated. He understands his role.
"It isn't frustrating at all," he said. "I knew when I came to USC that it was a run-oriented school. It's blocking first and then you're supposed to be dependable enough to catch a ball when you have the opportunity."
McKee, a prep All-American at Banning High, doesn't regard blocking as drudgery. "I've been doing it all my life and I enjoy it," he said, smiling.
Tight ends are sometimes the best kept secrets at USC. Then, they sometimes emerge in the NFL as quality blockers and receivers and someone will say, "I didn't remember that guy at USC."
Former Trojan tight ends who might fit that category are Bob Klein, Jim Obradovich, Hoby Brenner, Fred Cornwell and Mark Boyer.
Charle Young, a consensus All-American in 1972 and a first-round draft choice, was an exception. He caught 29 passes his senior season, still a record for USC tight ends.
Joe Cormier caught 44 last year, but as USC's tight end in motion, he was more of a wide receiver. McKee is a pure tight end.
McKee wears the same jersey number, 89, as Young did--and he's looking forward to a career in the NFL.
"The pros are looking for tight ends, who are big, can block and have good speed," McKee said. "I think my speed is good enough with a time of 4.75 seconds in the 40."
Nate Shaw, a USC assistant coach in charge of tight ends, said that McKee has worked hard on improving his hands, adding that he's a very physical blocker.
With linebacker Sam Anno permanently sidelined with a knee injury, there are only 11 seniors on the team, and McKee, as one, wants to make the most of what is left of the season.
Arizona State has already clinched a Rose Bowl bid, but USC could get a major bowl invitation if it wins its final conference games against California and UCLA.
"If we couldn't go to the Rose Bowl, I didn't want to see another team from L.A. going," McKee said.
Now what team would that be?
"We know, though, that something good will happen to us if we win our next two games," McKee said, adding that the Trojans aren't overlooking Cal Saturday at the Coliseum, even though the Bears have lost eight of nine games.
"There's a lot of hidden anger over last year's game," said McKee, referring to Cal's 14-6 upset win. "We won't take them lightly."
McKee will have to be excused if he hurriedly dresses after the Cal game and bolts out of the locker room.
"Banning is playing Carson in a 7:30 game, and I'm going to try to get there by halftime or, at least, see the last quarter," McKee said.
The Banning-Carson rivalry is the high school equivalent of USC-UCLA.
Although McKee grew up in Carson, he attended Banning in Wilmington.
"The school is in a very poor area and there are often drug pushers hanging around the street corners," McKee said. "Kids there are exposed to so many things at a young age, and you have to be strong to avoid getting involved in it."
That understood, it wasn't surprising that McKee participated in a recent NCAA-sponsored anti-drug video.
"I've been around people who have been involved in drugs and I've seen their lives affected by it, sometimes destroyed," McKee said. "You can only make suggestions. People are still going to do what they want to do. Even the deaths of Len Bias and Don Rogers may not change a lot of people. They don't think it will ever happen to them."
USC was one of the first schools that adopted a random drug-testing program, and McKee endorses it.
"As an athlete, you come here to reach your potential and go on to a higher level," McKee said. "If you're doing drugs, you're never going to reach that potential. You're going to hinder it, or destroy it. I think the program is good. It helps people down the line."
McKee said that he wants to work with young people in the future and to help them the way his parents helped him.
"My father is a retired Navy chief boatswain's mate and he's a strong disciplinarian," McKee said. "If things aren't going right, he's going to get it straight."
McKee has had an orderly procession in his USC career. As a freshman in 1983, he backed up Cornwell and Boyer. He was Boyer's backup in 1984 and became a starter last year.
A knee injury that occurred on the opening kickoff against Notre Dame last year--the same play that put flanker Randy Tanner out for the season--required arthroscopic surgery last February. But he still was able to participate in some of the spring practice sessions.
A public administration major, McKee said he intends to graduate and will eventually work for his uncle, a mortgage broker.
And, if the Rams are listening, he'd like to play for them, if possible.
"John Robinson's offense is basically the same one he ran at USC," McKee said.
Meanwhile, McKee will wait for that bullet pass over the middle from quarterback Rodney Peete. With only 21 catches in his USC career, he has learned to be patient.
The Trojan Club board of directors is sponsoring a special kids' day Saturday at the Coliseum. Handicapped children from Rancho Los Amigos and the Children's Hospital will be guests of the Trojans. . . . Cal hasn't defeated USC at the Coliseum since 1970. In the last three meetings here, USC has outscored Cal, 133-14. . . . USC outside linebacker Marcus Cotton, who leads his team in quarterback sacks with 8, and pass deflections with 12, is forthright about his goals. "I want to be an All-American," Cotton said. "I love the bright lights and attention that go along with being an All-American. I want to make the covers of a few national magazines. And I especially want to be on the Bob Hope (All-American) show."