LOS ANGELES >> University of Southern California offensive coordinator Tee Martin knows developing chemistry between a quarterback and his wide receivers is no easy task.
“I remember going through this my senior year,” said Martin, referencing his time as a quarterback at Tennessee. “Having a bunch of young guys at receiver, it took us about two or three games and then we started rolling.”
The No. 6 Trojans won 49-31 over Western Michigan last week but even so the inexperience of the receiving corps was evident.
There were three redshirt freshmen playing in their first game, plus the debut of touted freshman Joseph Lewis. Redshirt senior Steven Mitchell was seeing his first action since tearing the ACL in his left knee last season. Former quarterback Jalen Greene made his first career start.
Coach Clay Helton counted four dropped passes. Quarterback Sam Darnold had one interception go off a receiver’s hands. A second came when a receiver lost his footing. Those are mistakes USC can’t repeat in the Pac-12 opener against No. 14 Stanford on Sept. 9.
But Martin, who also coaches the wide receivers, thought the good outweighed the bad.
“Not only were some of the young guys playing for their first time, but a lot of our veteran guys, seniors, they’re playing in their positions for the first time, too,” Martin said. “I liked some of the things we did. It wasn’t all bad, but you watch film and we’re going to improve on the things we know we got to get better at.”
Darnold has a role to play in that development by learning each receiver’s tendencies and placing the ball to accentuate each skill set.
“Last year, Darreus Rogers, if you just threw it up and it was even, he was going to come down with a lot of them. Juju (Smith-Schuster) liked to be led. They’re all different, and it takes you time as a quarterback,” Martin said.
With that in mind, it wasn’t a surprise that Darnold leaned heavily on his most experienced returning receiver in Deontay Burnett, who had seven catches for 142 yards. Another reliable option, tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe, had one reception for 12 yards despite being limited by a hip flexor injury.
Imatorbhebhe should see a full workload this week, and having two dependable pass catchers could free up more playing time for some of the younger receivers. Martin liked that Tyler Vaughns blocked well and was able to create separation. Velus Jones could use his speed as a deep threat. Trevon Sidney caught a pass for seven yards on his only offensive snap with USC trailing late in the third quarter.
“First catch, always a good feeling,” Sidney said. “Just wanted to get in there a little more, but that was my role for that game and I did my role.”
The most promising might be Lewis, a consensus five-star recruit. Lewis offers a bigger body similar to Smith-Schuster and Rogers, Darnold’s favorite targets last season.
“The kid’s a grown man,” Martin said. “The moment is not too big for him, the competition is not too great for him. He wants it, he welcomes it, and it won’t be long before he is a consistent player for us.”