As far as first impressions go, this one wasn’t exactly ideal. It was 2015, and Michael Pittman Jr. stood on the practice field at Oaks Christian School, with his pants sagging and his shoes untied. As a pass soared over his head during a drill, he didn’t bother running after it.
To his new coach standing on the sideline, it was unacceptable behavior. So Jim Benkert, who’d just been hired from Westlake and barely knew his new star wideout, stormed over to Pittman and gave him an ultimatum.
“You will never play for me,” Benkert told him, “unless you change.”
The exchange left the senior receiver stunned. As Benkert walked back to his staff, he wondered immediately if he’d made a huge mistake.
Moments later, Pittman leaned down to tie his shoes, “and I breathed a sigh of relief,” Benkert said.
“After that, he was a dream.”
Four years later and a few days after the most eye-opening performance of his career in a crucial victory over Utah, Pittman considers that moment and grins. That feels like an ancient version of himself, one that came long before his winding road at USC, long before he was humbled as a freshman and made a captain as a senior.
Now, with his final season at USC in full swing, Pittman is the unquestioned leader and emotional center of one of the nation’s best receiving corps, with a draft stock on the rise and more yards (437) and receptions (31) through four games than any other Pac-12 receiver. The coach who once demanded he change now sees a receiver finally reaching his potential.
“I think SC is finally seeing now just how great this kid can be,” Benkert said.
But when he first arrived at USC, Pittman admits, he’d never taken football all that seriously before. On-field success had always come easy; even the 24 touchdowns he scored as a high school senior felt somewhat effortless.
So when he joined a crowded receivers room at USC a year later, expecting opportunities to be laid before him, it proved to be a rude awakening. He was the only freshman receiver not redshirting, and as a result, he says, every mistake made in practice was amplified. Any lack of effort was exposed.
“Everybody would see,” Pittman recalls. “I’d get embarrassed, and they’d make me go stand on the side of the field to watch because I messed up. Just freshman stuff.”
Opportunities were few and far between. He tried to be patient, to focus on special teams like coaches told him, but he caught just six passes as a freshman and stewed for much of the season.
A nagging ankle injury as a sophomore left him on the bench, feeling even more defeated. Then, by midseason, his father, Michael Sr., who was feeling just as impatient with his son’s opportunities, unleashed a string of angry tweets questioning the decisions of USC’s coaching staff.
As Pittman looks back now on that very public frustration, he understands they were both being short-sighted. Those challenges and frustrations made him the receiver he is now.
“I wasn’t looking towards the future,” Pittman says. “I was focused on the now. When I look back on it, I really see that, ‘Hey, I wasn’t the best guy out there.’ That’s just stuff you realize as you get older.”
But last Friday, as the Trojans were down to their last scholarship quarterback, there was no better player on the field than the wideout. On a third down, early in the second half, Pittman leaped high in the air to snag a deep ball falling between Utah two defensive backs. As he landed, he took off, stiff-arming a defenseless Utah defender as he sprinted towards the end zone for a 77-yard score.
The touchdown broke the game open. Then, when USC needed to put away the Pac-12 favorite, it was Pittman who came through again, snagging a 42-yard reception to set up the deciding touchdown. By game’s end, he had 10 catches for 232 yards and a touchdown.
“The guy is a monster,” quarterback Matt Fink said of Pittman after. “You can’t guard him.”
For nearly four years, Pittman had been waiting to be USC’s top target. But even as he finally seems to be emerging in that role, he knows the nature of USC’s spread-it-out passing offense means he might see less opportunity this week, as USC faces a tough secondary in Seattle.
After waiting his turn, Pittman is OK with that. But as far as he’s concerned, the only thing still keeping him from continued dominance is more shots downfield like Fink took last Friday.
“If I got that (opportunity) every game, I really think it would happen like that every game,” Pittman said. “But I just take my shots. Whatever they give me, I’ll take. I don’t ever go in thinking, throw me the damn ball. I just wait for it to come to me.”