Never mind Student Body Left, or Student Body Right.
When it comes to the NFL, USC has run a beautifully executed reverse.
After several highly-touted receivers from the Pete Carroll era failed to pan out in the pros — Mike Williams, Dwayne Jarrett, and Keary Colbert among them — a new wave of sure-handed stars is changing the way NFL evaluators look at wideouts from the school.
The Rams’ Robert Woods, Philadelphia’s Nelson Agholor, Jacksonville’s Marqise Lee, and Pittsburgh’s JuJu Smith-Schuster are all former Trojans who have emerged as go-to guys for teams on track for the playoffs.
“USC had been tainted a little bit,” Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley said. “I can only speak for myself, but I was like, ‘Oh, here’s another USC guy. How am I going to get excited about him? There hasn’t been a good one since Keyshawn [Johnson], or whoever.’ But now that you’ve got these guys…”
Smith-Schuster, a second-round pick, leads all rookies in receiving yards (568) and is tied in that group for the most touchdown catches (five) and receptions of 20-plus yards (seven). He’s nursing a hamstring injury and will be a spectator Sunday night when the Steelers play host to Green Bay.
Woods is out, too, recovering from a shoulder injury. Since coming to Los Angeles last March, he leads the Rams in catches with 47 for 703 yards and four touchdowns, including one for 94 yards — the NFL’s second-longest touchdown reception this year, behind Smith-Schuster’s 97-yard down-the-middle gem against Detroit.
Lee, a second-round pick in 2014, leads the Jaguars in receptions (43), receiving yards (538), and yards per catch (12.5). After two disappointing seasons, Agholor, a first-round pick in 2015, has had a breakout season for the league-leading Eagles. He has moved inside to slot receiver and has 30 catches for 426 yards and five touchdowns.
They are friends relishing in their own success, and that of their fellow Trojans.
“Me and Marqise, we talk almost daily. Nelson and I text about every other week,” said Woods, 25, who doesn’t know the 21-year-old Smith-Schuster as well. “Just players making big plays. When we see success, we’re always reaching out to each other and giving acknowledgment. Our trio — me, Marqise and Nelson — we’re pretty tight and still connected.”
It’s fitting that USC has Hall of Fame receiver Lynn Swann as its athletic director, because wideouts from the school haven’t made this kind of splash since two decades ago when first-rounders Johnson, Curtis Conway, and Johnnie Morton carved their way through NFL defenses.
There were multiple receivers drafted in the early rounds during the Carroll era — Colbert in the second (2004), Williams in the first (2005), Jarrett in the second (2007) — but none had a distinguished NFL career. Steve Smith, a second-round pick of the New York Giants in 2007, got off to a promising start but his career was derailed by injuries.
Johnson said those players had the benefit of great players around them at USC, in some cases masking the deficiencies in their game.
“Whenever you have six other guys around you that are just as dominant too, sometimes your skill set never develops,” he said. “Everything is easy. Everything is, ‘I’ve got the football and it’s a one-on-one matchup? Touchdown.’
“Some of those guys from an individual matchup situation weren’t as good as you would think. The system hid their skills to a degree.
“In the NFL, you have to work your tail off. Now you become a technician, instead of a bubble-screen giant and a statistical freak. Guys look at the numbers and go, ‘Oh, he’s really good. He caught a bubble screen.’ Doesn’t mean anything. They’ll say, ‘Yeah, but did you see his numbers?’ But how about the fact that when he has to get open by himself, he can’t?”
The current NFL receivers from the school know how to create separation and get open. Haley said a key to that is all know how to move inside and play in the slot, do the dirty work, as opposed to spending their college careers strictly in the glamour spot of a spread offense — lined up wide and expected to take the top off a defense with down-the-field splash plays.
“In the slot, you need to be smart,” Haley said. “You have to have vision. You have to have feel. And you have to be tough, because you’re going to get hit.”
Arizona Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer, who won the Heisman Trophy at USC, said the school prepares receivers for what they will be asked to do at the next level.
“I studied a bunch of JuJu coming out, and obviously watched a lot of SC,” he said. “They’re running curls, digs, comebacks and slants. They’re running NFL routes. It may not be an NFL system, but they’re running routes.
“In the NFL, I’ve seen a ton of really good athletes and potential receivers, but they literally don’t know how to run a curl route, because they haven’t run one. In college, they’re running bubble screens and all this different misdirection stuff, and speed sweeps. If you don’t know how to run a route, it’s so difficult to come into the NFL. That’s why you so rarely see rookie receivers have impacts in that first year.”
Especially for high draft picks, the expectations can be overwhelming. A lot of people wrote off Agholor in his first two seasons with the Eagles, after Chip Kelly used the No. 20 pick on him. Conway, who also didn’t hit his stride until the third year of his NFL career, worked with Agholor during the offseason.
“He did all his homework and he knew everything about my start,” Conway said. “We had a lot of conversations outside of training, and we just talked about the mental part of the game. He knew physically he could do it, he just couldn’t figure it out.
“With Nelson it was just growing mentally as a player. Because when we were out there on the field, the dude works hard. One thing about the league is, you don’t have time to think. You’ve got to react. When you’re out there thinking, you’re going to drop balls, you’re not going to be as sure when you run routes, and that’s going to slow you down. That was Nelson. So this year, we ran routes. We got in the film room and we studied.”
Even some legendary players can appreciate the fruits of their labor — not just what’s happening in Philadelphia, but in Los Angeles, Jacksonville and Pittsburgh too.
“The question to me is, which one of these guys will go on to have a career where they’re doing it for the next five to 10 years?” said Hall of Fame safety Ronnie Lott, a USC icon. “That’s the beauty of it. We’re going to get a chance to see four incredibly gifted athletes continue to hone their craft.”
In the meantime, the reputation of USC is starting to change in NFL circles.
“Histories and traditions in college football are changing all the time, especially as we evolve toward a pass-first, spread-offense culture,” said Mike Mayock, a draft expert for NFL Network. “Penn State used to be Linebacker U; now they’ve got the best tailback in the country, and years ago they had tailbacks also. The Big 12 has gone from smash-mouth football years ago, to glorified seven-on-seven.”
So is USC now Wide Receiver U?
“Clemson can claim it’s Wide Receiver U. Miami can claim it’s Wide Receiver U,” Johnson said. “I would call us Quick Six U. I like that: Quick Six U — like you’re going to get a quick six points out of our receivers. Strike up the band, baby!”