USC tight ends ready to prove they can handle a larger role in the offense
Long before USC gave him his first assistant coaching job, John David Baker’s first foray into coaching came in an elementary school gym class.
As part of his physical education degree from Abilene Christian, Baker spent a semester as a student P.E. teacher in Texas. He didn’t need the whole semester to realize he wasn’t cut out for the job.
“I’m certified for all levels,” Baker said Tuesday, “so I spent half of a semester in elementary P.E., which was an absolute nightmare for me, and the other half of the semester I spent at a middle school, which was even worse because it was about the time middle school kids were getting cellphones. So it was a bad time for me to be stuck in a middle school.”
His first full-time college assistant job didn’t exactly come at an ideal time, either. USC promoted Baker in January from quality control assistant to tight ends and inside receivers coach. Just two months later, college football was shut down by the coronavirus.
It wasn’t until a few weeks ago that Baker was actually able to gather in a meeting room with his USC tight ends for the first time. But that time apart, he says, helped his new tight ends understand their new coach in ways they wouldn’t have otherwise.
“For the first two or three months, we didn’t even talk football on our Zoom calls,” Baker said. “I knew that what we did offensively, if we meet over this for the next however long, it’s going to get old. But more importantly, I was missing out on time being around these guys. I needed to know them, and they needed to know me better.”
What remains unknown is the degree to which tight ends will factor into USC’s offense this season. In 2019, the position accounted for 15 receptions — or just 4% of the Trojans’ total catches.
Back in the spring, shortly after he was hired, Baker explained that his tight ends would have to prove they were worthy of a larger share of USC’s passing offense. On Tuesday, he said that process was further along than he anticipated, even after one of his expected top options, Daniel Imatorbhebhe, transferred to Illinois in the offseason.
A similar progression came to fruition at North Texas, where Baker also coached with current USC offensive coordinator Graham Harrell, between their first and second seasons together. In 2016, tight ends accounted for just seven catches — an even smaller percentage of the offense than Year 1 at USC. But in 2017, that total jumped to 31 catches — or more than 10% of the passing offense.
USC’s tight ends are looking forward to their own larger piece of the passing offense.
Starters Olaijah Griffin and Chris Steele hope to thrive in the system installed by new cornerbacks coach Donte Williams.
“We haven’t gotten as many balls the last two years as we’ve wanted to,” senior tight end Erik Krommenhoek said. “We love being physical, lining up and just running the ball. We’re going to need to do that to be successful this year. But at the same time, like JDB said, we’re not as deep at receiver as we have been. That’s going to be an enhanced role on the offense. I’m excited. I think we’re going to get a lot more opportunities on that outside than we have in the past.”
Krommenhoek is expected to lead that group initially. He spent part of the summer working out with Cleveland Browns tight end Austin Hooper in hopes of further developing as a pass catcher. Redshirt freshman Jude Wolfe has also earned plaudits during training camp and could be a factor.
Senior Josh Falo, who was expected to lead the position last season, is “slowly working his way back in and getting back in shape,” Baker said, after he missed part of USC’s offseason training.
Whoever winds up taking the lead at tight end — and whatever role they might occupy in USC’s offense — Baker is just happy he can now guide them in person.
However, he’d still take coaching via Zoom over an elementary school gym class.
“Any day of the week,” Baker said.
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