Joseph Lewis IV stands at 6 feet 2 and weighs 220 pounds. He was, according to some recruiting services, a five-star recruit in the latest cycle, considered one of the best receivers in the country. During Tuesday’s practice, Lewis performed as well as he has since arriving at USC. He caught balls in traffic and in space, on short routes and after long gallops down the numbers.
So, is the freshman the savior for USC’s receiving corps?
For now, though, USC is content with Lewis playing an increasing role in the passing game that is searching for reliable options other than slot receiver Deontay Burnett.
Aside from starters Jalen Greene and Steven Mitchell Jr., the Trojans have tried a long list of reserves. Tyler Vaughns has occupied the No. 4 position. Speedy slot receiver Velus Jones Jr. saw action Saturday, in the hopes that he might provide the deep threat that USC lacks. Trevon Sidney played one snap and made one reception. Josh Imatorbhebhe has entered the rotation during practice, though not yet in games.
But the coaches have reserved their most glowing reviews for Lewis.
“He’s really playing good,” offensive coordinator Tee Martin said. “The kid’s a grown man. The moment is not too big for him, the competition is not too great for him. He wants it, he welcomes it, and it won’t be long before he’s a consistent player for us.”
Coach Clay Helton said Lewis “kind of reminds me of what JuJu [Smith-Schuster] was, to be honest with you. Maybe even a faster version of JuJu.”
Lewis played 11 snaps against Western Michigan. Though he didn’t catch a pass on Saturday, he was granted his heaviest workload yet during practice this week. Lewis called Tuesday the best practice of his short college career.
But Lewis may not make a large impact immediately. He has yet to mount a significant threat to crack the starting lineup.
USC can use his help, though, particularly against Stanford’s secondary, which is maybe the Pac-12 Conference’s best. After USC’s uninspiring opening-game receiving performance, Helton has noted often this week that 10 USC players caught passes against Western Michigan. But only two receivers, Burnett and Mitchell, caught more than one. (Tight end Tyler Petite and running back Stephen Carr also caught three each.)
Lewis is the most likely to be the answer in the long term. Helton said that the staff all agreed that “the light just kind of started to click on late last week.” It was similar, he said, to what the staff saw from Carr, who had a breakout performance in his first game.
Special teams errors
It did not cause USC’s loss to Stanford last season, but its special teams play did cause some embarrassment; during one extra-point block attempt, USC lined up with eight men on the field.
And so USC raised some alarm when it lined up 10 players on another point-after attempt against Western Michigan on Saturday. It was part of a string of special teams errors. USC also gave up a kick return touchdown and earned a rare delay-of-game penalty on a kickoff.
Special teams coach John Baxter said the penalty resulted from miscommunication between the officials. “To be honest with you, I think that that crew would probably re-think that call,” he said.
The kickoff return resulted from poor kick placement, Helton said. A kick meant for the right corner ended up in the middle of the field.
The missing man occurred on the ensuing point. That, Baxter said, was just an error.
“Oh boy,” Baxter said. “That was a fast and furious 10 seconds. It doesn’t happen to us very often, I have to tell you.”
Blind long snapper Jake Olson, who was named the Pac-12’s special teams player of the week after snapping for the first time Saturday, said he would like to snap next against a live rush. Western Michigan didn’t rush the kick.
“I do want to be out there in a college game where there is a live rush and you can see I’m not made out of glass and that I can take contact and even be knocked to the ground off of maybe a block or something and just get up like a normal player would,” Olson said.
Helton indicated that may become a possibility.
“I think that we’ve just touched the surface from what Jake’s gonna be allowed to do,” Helton said.
Right tackle Chuma Edoga, who has been limited in practice with a knee contusion, looked “better” on Wednesday, Helton said. If he cannot play against Stanford, Helton said the replacement probably would be freshman Andrew Vorhees.
Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand