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USC

USC’s JuJu Smith-Schuster prepares for double-teams

JuJu Smith-Schuster

USC receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster speeds past Arkansas State defenders Rocky Hayes (3) and Blaise Taylor (1) for a 61-yard touchdown pass play in the first quarter Saturday night at the Coliseum.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Curtis Conway, a former USC receiver who played 12 years in the NFL, watched JuJu Smith-Schuster during training camp as the sophomore prepared for the season.

“He has to understand now that when defenses play USC, JuJu’s going to be circled,” Conway, a television analyst, said after the workout. “He has to learn how to be a No. 1 receiver.”

“You’ve got to be able to beat double-teams.”

After Smith-Schuster scored on a 61-yard touchdown pass play in the Trojans’ opener against Arkansas State, he found himself double-covered for much of the game.

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The sophomore finished with four catches, and with resolve to make the most of his opportunities despite double coverage.

Smith-Schuster, 6 feet 2 and 215 pounds, said Wednesday that getting the attention of more than one defender was fine if it freed other Trojans receivers to make catches.

“At the same time,” he said, “in my mind, I’m like, ‘Dude, if I win on a double-team, that looks good for NFL scouts.’”

Smith-Schuster caught 54 passes last season as the No. 2 receiver in a corps that included Nelson Agholor, the 20th player chosen in the 2015 NFL draft.

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He worked this week on improving his timing with quarterback Cody Kessler, especially on deeper throws. The Trojans play Idaho on Saturday at the Coliseum.

“We’re fixing it,” Smith-Schuster said.

He also has attempted to inspire other receivers. On Tuesday, Smith-Schuster got into an emotional exchange on the field with Isaac Whitney.

“In a moment, what I did, it was out of anger and frustration and competitiveness just because I know we can work harder than we did [Tuesday],” Smith-Schuster said, adding that he sought out Whitney in the locker room afterward to explain himself.

Smith hinted at his plans — “I still have one more year left,” he said —and indicated he was more concerned about team results, not individual statistics.

“I’m worried about my team,” he said, “and how we can win every game.”

Impressive debut

USC linebacker Porter Gustin admires former Trojans linebackers Clay Matthews and Brian Cushing, both of whom became NFL first-round draft picks in 2009.

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Gustin began his USC career last week, one of 13 freshmen who debuted against Arkansas State.

The 6-5, 254-pound Gustin made three tackles and said he was “thinking too much” in his first game.

“I wasn’t playing physical enough,” he said. “I worked on that and it will be changed by Saturday.”

Linebackers coach Peter Sirmon also expects Gustin’s technique to improve.

“He plays with great effort,” Sirmon said. “We should all expect significant improvement every week he takes the field because of how he prepares.”

Another perspective

Coach Steve Sarkisian said two weeks ago that relinquishing play-calling duties to Clay Helton would allow him to focus more on the defense and special teams.

During practices this week, with the offense working at one end of the facility, Sarkisian has been a regular presence during defensive and special teams drills.

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“It wasn’t coachspeak when I said that’s what I was going to do,” Sarkisian said. “I really am more involved in all three phases than I’ve ever been. I’m enjoying it.”

Quick hits

Offensive lineman Damien Mama suffered a knee sprain, Sarkisian said. Viane Talamaivao could play left guard in his place. … Cornerback Adoree’ Jackson, who was held out of some drills Tuesday because of an abdominal strain, participated in all drills…. Receiver Steven Mitchell Jr., who is nursing a bruised hand, did all drills…. Linebacker Lamar Dawson (ribs) is progressing but has not been cleared for contact, Sarkisian said. Dawson is expected to sit out against Idaho with hope of returning against Stanford on Sept. 19.

gary.klein@latimes.com

Twitter: @latimesklein


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