Eight games into his college career, Devon Williams’ time for USC finally had come.
Michael Pittman Jr. had exited with a shoulder injury sustained in the first quarter of Saturday’s game at Oregon State, and Pittman found the freshman Williams on the sideline and gave him a simple request.
“Fill the role,” Pittman told him.
It wasn’t just any role. During October, Pittman was unquestionably the Trojans’ most consistent offensive weapon. No matter what was going on with the offense, they could count on Pittman to win one-on-one battles and make plays.
As much as quarterback JT Daniels hated to see Pittman go, he knew what kind of player Williams was, and, considering their close relationship as suite mates on campus, he also knew how hard Williams had been working to prepare for this scenario.
So on the Trojans’ third series, Daniels took a shot deep to Williams. It did not work out, Williams said, because he let the defender get a hold of him and could not break away.
“It was pretty much my fault,” Williams said.
Daniels could see what happened and did not think it should happen again.
“I told him, ‘If anybody presses you, nobody can run with you. If it’s press again, I’ll quickly fake and get it out quicker than I did before,’ ” Daniels said.
Two plays later, Daniels found Williams on third-and-six for seven yards and a first down. It was Williams’ first college reception. Five plays later, Daniels saw press coverage again and did exactly what he said would do, faking a handoff and letting it fly down the left sideline. This time Williams kept the defender behind him with what he called a “chicken wing,” and the pass dropped perfectly into his hands in the end zone for a 41-yard touchdown.
The Trojans led 21-0 on the way to a 38-21 victory, and Williams — rated the sixth-best wide receiver in the country last year out of Antelope Valley High in Lancaster — had given his teammates, coaches and USC fans a glimpse of the future.
“As soon as I got off the line, I knew I had him beat,” Williams said, “He was going to try to pull me back. I had to fight off of it.”
Williams finished with a team-high 77 yards on three catches. USC may need him to do it again this weekend against California. Coach Clay Helton said Sunday night that Pittman has a shoulder injury and will have an MRI to see the severity of it.
“Mike is one of the toughest men I know,” Helton said, “so for him to come out of a game, he’s hurt.”
Helton did not hesitate to put Williams in against the Beavers. At 6-foot-4, he is a natural replacement for Pittman on the outside, and Helton noticed that Williams’ confidence has been growing the past couple weeks at practice.
“He did a great job,” Helton said. “We’re very fortunate to have two young players that I think are going to have tremendous careers here. Amon-ra [St. Brown] was so critical for us on third downs, and then it was neat to see Devon get the two big plays in the game. He’s a kid that you just knew it was going to happen for him.”
Given the depth chart, with Pittman, Tyler Vaughns, St. Brown and Velus Jones Jr., it was no surprise Williams did not make an immediate impact. He also was struggling to learn the playbook, Daniels said, an expected adjustment to the college game.
“Devon’s been working his butt off this whole year,” Daniels said. “He was perfect tonight. Not a single missed assignment as far as I know. I trusted him to be in the right spot, and he made every play that came his way.”
Running out of defensive backs
For a USC secondary that allowed 301 passing yards Saturday, there was more bad news on the injury front.
Senior cornerback Iman Marshall suffered an ankle sprain. Redshirt freshman cornerback Greg Johnson hurt a shoulder. Freshman cornerback Olaijah Griffin already was out with a shoulder injury.
That leaves senior cornerback Isaiah Langley, who has struggled mightily in coverage, and senior nickel back Jonathan Lockett. Ajene Harris could help out at cornerback, but he has been filling in at safety after the season-ending injury to Talanoa Hufanga.
It could be a patchwork unit Saturday against California.
“I’m very much concerned,” Helton said. “I think Lockett is playing exceptional football right now. He has the ability to go to corner. Ajene can also go out there. Once we hit that Tuesday, Wednesday marker, we’ll see what the reality to the situation is.”