JuJu Smith-Schuster joined his teammates in the John McKay Center two Sundays ago for a briefing on how USC’s offense would attack Utah.
The more he heard from the coaches, the more he liked. For one of the few times this season, the receiver sensed opportunity.
“The whole game plan wasn’t centered around me,” he explained. “But there were plays to be made.”
Smith-Schuster sliced up defenses last season. He and Ronald Jones II, who set USC’s freshman rushing record, promised to present opponents with an impossible choice: Stack the box to stop Jones or backfield mate Justin Davis, or back off and focus on Smith-Schuster?
Either way, USC’s offense was expected to be explosive.
Then the season began.
USC ranks 88th nationally in plays of 20 yards or longer and quarterback Max Browne lasted only three games as the starter before he was benched in favor of Sam Darnold. But the reason for USC’s lack of big plays has been its inability to spark Smith-Schuster or Jones.
Smith-Schuster has routinely faced double teams, wedged between a cornerback and a safety, like twin fighter jets escorting a wayward bomber out of enemy airspace.
At this point last season, he had 27 receptions, 537 yards and six touchdowns. This season, he has 19 receptions, 197 yards and two touchdowns.
“I expect to get the ball a lot more,” Smith-Schuster said this week. “Every guy should feel like that.”
So during the meeting, USC revealed a new strategy: The Trojans would deploy Smith-Schuster in a battery of different formations against Utah. He said even handoffs were discussed. Quarterback Darnold was to be judicious with his deep forays. Mainly, USC’s coaches wanted quick strikes.
“We just want to get him the ball,” offensive coordinator Tee Martin explained.
That focus was evident against Utah. Smith-Schuster was targeted nine times. Three were short hitches to the first-down marker. Two were quick crosses that had him emerge from a stack formation, where he could be lost in a wash of bodies. One was another crossing pattern from the slot.
Only once did Darnold connect on a long pass, a 35-yard lob down the sideline. And even then, the pass was available because the safety, for a change, offered only half-hearted help.
The plan yielded Smith-Schuster’s best game this season: eight catches for 98 yards. The only pass toward him that fell incomplete was because of miscommunication between him and Darnold.
The yardage was slightly below Smith-Schuster’s average from last season, but it provided a blueprint for getting the ball in his hands. Smith-Schuster’s target rate has dropped from about 31% to 24% since last season. He is now targeted just barely more than No. 2 option Darreus Rogers, according to FootballStudyHall.com.
“If it’s handing me the ball or throwing me the ball, either way, I feel like I should be put more into the game,” Smith-Schuster said.
USC could survive a less explosive Smith-Schuster if the running game punished the double team. Davis, USC’s starter and carries leader, has done that often, averaging 5.7 yards per rush.
It is Jones, though, who is most capable of breaking big plays.
“The thing about Ronald, any play, any given down, he’s going to break one 70 yards, 80 yards,” Davis said earlier this season.
But Jones has been struggling. And he’s not sure why. He says it might be his vision. Or maybe bad luck. All he knows is his production, 132 yards in 31 carries over four games, is pedestrian. At this point last season, he’d rushed for 241 yards in 30 carries. And those were the first four games of his college career.
Jones’ lurching start has been more vexing because there isn’t an easy fix. Jones thought he wasn’t seeing the field well.
“I actually think that he has grown as a running back, in terms of his patience and how he’s running with the ball,” Martin said. “When he was younger, he just kind of got the ball and ran. Sometimes it was good. But he probably couldn’t tell you how he did it. Now I think he has a better understanding of the runs.”
Perhaps, Martin said, Jones wasn’t relying enough on his instincts.
“That can happen to a young running back,” Martin said.
Last season, Jones had a run of at least 20 yards in nine games. This season, he’s had only one — a 46-yard bolt against Alabama.
Against Utah, the holes did not develop. Once, he appeared to have an edge and a lane down the sideline. But the defensive end drove the tight end into the backfield and Jones’ angle was too tight. He absorbed contact and managed only a modest gain.
Those are the plays that, a season ago, he did not miss.
“He’s gonna break loose,” Coach Clay Helton said. “He’s ultra-talented, and we’re gonna keep on feeding him the ball.”
Offensive tackle Zach Banner (ankle sprain) was held from team drills for a second practice, but Helton expects him to return Thursday. … Cornerback Jack Jones’ sprained ankle has improved and Helton said “he’s got a chance” to play against Arizona State.