After a senior season that ranks among the best for a receiver in program history, Pittman was selected by the Indianapolis Colts on Friday with the 34th pick of the NFL draft.
The 6-foot-4, 225-pound USC wideout will offer a big-bodied target for new Colts quarterback and former Charger Philip Rivers.
Pittman, whose father was a fourth-round pick in 1998 who played 11 seasons as a running back, marks another feather in USC’s cap as a waypoint for receivers on their way to the NFL. As the second pick of the second round, he’s the highest USC receiver to be drafted since 2015, when Nelson Agholor was selected 20th. Only eight other Trojan wideouts have been drafted higher, a list that includes Keyshawn Johnson, Lynn Swann and Curtis Conway.
Several recent Trojans receivers have parlayed second-round selections into a successful NFL career — JuJu Smith-Schuster (62nd overall), Marqise Lee (39th) and Robert Woods (41st) among them.
In this year’s draft, Pittman is the second Trojan to be selected, after Austin Jackson was drafted 18th by the Miami Dolphins on Thursday. No other Trojans are expected to be picked until late in the draft, when linebacker John Houston could hear his name called.
For Pittman, the path to Friday was a long and winding one. As a freshman at USC, he found himself buried on the depth chart and frustrated with a role that existed primarily on special teams. A nagging ankle injury deepened that frustration as a sophomore, leading his father, Michael Sr., to send a series of angry tweets targeted at USC.
It was that frustration and adversity that set the table for the remaining two years of his Trojan career. Humbled as a junior, Pittman led a moribund USC passing game in receiving with 758 yards. By the next season, he was a captain. And as a revamped Trojans offense took off, he burst onto the scene as a Biletnikoff Award finalist.
His production as a senior didn’t alter some perceptions ahead of the draft about his lackluster speed. Six other receivers went ahead of Pittman, only one of whom (Louisiana State’s Justin Jefferson) caught more passes in their final collegiate seasons. But with the Colts, Pittman should have a chance to contribute right away.
It took Pittman a few years to find his place at USC. But by 2019, he was one of just four receivers to catch more than 100 passes. An All-Pac-12 first-team selection, Pittman’s 1,275 yards were the 10th-most among college receivers, while his 11 touchdowns ranked 19th.
In a particularly memorable performance last fall, with USC down to its final scholarship quarterback against Pac-12 South favorite Utah, Pittman completely took over, disarming one of the nation’s top defenses.
On a third down, early in the second half, he leaped to snag a soaring pass between two defensive backs, before stiff-arming another and sprinting for a 77-yard touchdown.
It was just the beginning of a career performance — and one of the best ever for a Trojans receiver. His 232 receiving yards were the fifth-most in a game in program history.
“The guy is a monster,” Matt Fink, the quarterback, said of Pittman then. “You can’t guard him.”
Now, after four years at USC, Pittman will finally have his chance to prove how far his monstrous skills can take him in the NFL.
Michael Pittman, USC
6 feet 4, 225 pounds
The former Westlake Village Oaks Christian High star, after combining for 64 catches for 1,162 yards and eight touchdowns in 2017 and 2018, had a breakout 2019 season, when he caught 101 passes for 1,275 yards and 11 scores and was a Biletnikoff Award finalist. Pittman lacks the blazing speed to be a No. 1 wideout in the NFL, but with his size, physicality, reliable hands and intelligence, he should be a productive possession receiver at the next level.
— Mike DiGiovanna