Recruiting stars aren’t everything in college football. Washington State’s receiving corps should know that much.
But they are also more than nothing. USC’s wide receivers may be the sport’s best example in 2020.
If Washington State and USC can make it to an imaginary finish line and avoid any additional COVID-19 setbacks before a 4:30 p.m. kickoff Sunday at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, the game will feature a handful of the conference’s most explosive skill players and teams that have successfully managed to replace a receiver who was drafted by the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts – second-round pick Michael Pittman Jr. of USC, and sixth-round pick Dezmon Patmon of WSU.
The Pac-12’s four leading receivers will be on the field when the Cougars and Trojans clash in the Coliseum. WSU’s Renard Bell (109 yards per game) and Travell Harris (100.5) claim the top two spots, but depending what happens Sunday, they could be usurped by USC’s Amon-Ra St. Brown (88.7) and Drake London (79.3)
In recent years, USC fans have probably grown weary of highly touted, homegrown recruits arriving on campus with lots of hype and fanfare, only to leave for the NFL three or four years later without producing the Pac-12 championships and major bowl wins that are not as much of a goal but an expectation in Troy.
In that sense, USC’s talented receivers have a lot to live up to. But if three games are any indication, they aren’t lacking firepower , and four of them in particular should have WSU’s attention.
“I think the difference is their length,” WSU defensive coordinator Jake Dickert said. “We go against dynamic cats every day at practice, but they’re shorter and they’re just quicker. It’s different. Their slot guy, 15 (London), is 6-5 in there. So it’s just different challenges. Their movements, the way they can stretch the field, their catch radius.
“… I think they possess those challenges as well as every time they touch the ball, they can make big plays with it.”
Of the 20 possible recruiting stars USC’s receiving quartet could have accumulated from 247Sports.com, St. Brown, London, Tyler Vaughns and Bru McCoy combined for 18 as high school players who were coveted by just about every major Power Five program in the country.
St. Brown, considered the top overall player in California in the 2018 class, was also the nation’s No. 2 receiver and 22nd highest-rated recruit in USC history. McCoy, who initially signed with Texas, was the nation’s highest-rated athlete in the 2019 class and the second overall prospect in California. Vaughns was California’s sixth-rated recruit and the state’s second-best receiver. London, a fellow four-star prospect who turned down an offer from Virginia hoops coach Tony Bennett for the chance to play football and basketball at USC, was California’s No. 35 overall player and the country’s No. 33 receiver.
USC’s receivers were supposed to be among the country’s best when they left their respective LA-area high schools. They’ve mostly met those lofty expectations playing in Graham Harrell’s interpretation of the Air Raid offense.
Vaughns, who had 912 receiving yards last season, is up to 185 this year. McCoy, the fourth option for all-conference quarterback Kedon Slovis, has still supplied some key catches for the Trojans, catching a tipped pass for a touchdown against Arizona State that helped key USC’s comeback.
“Got some length, got some speed, they get the ball to them in space when they’ve got kind of numbers on their side,” WSU coach Nick Rolovich said. “So those quick throws out to the flat, whether it’s an out stuff or shots down the field.”
The receiving corps WSU rolls out will include Bell, Harris, Jamire Calvin and Lucas Bacon. By using the same scale, WSU’s group accumulated just 10 recruiting stars, with Calvin being the only four-star prospect. Bell and Harris were both three-star recruits and Bacon, who’s played at “X” receiver with Calvin Jackson Jr. injured, is still a walk-on for the Cougars.
But the group, led by two small slot receivers – Bell (5-8, 161) and Harris (5-9, 180) – has shown it doesn’t need hype or height to produce when it matters. The slots have each turned in a career performance this season, with Harris reeling in seven passes for 107 yards and two touchdowns – and another touchdown rushing – against Oregon State and Bell catching 10 passes for 158 yards against Oregon.
“The thing that helped the most early on was those were two guys that completely bought in to what we were doing in the offense and philosophically and have really kind of soaked up everything that we’re doing,” Cougars offensive coordinator Brian Smith said. “As far as how we’re teaching the offense and the selflessness of how they can help get each other open and how they have the ability to create opportunities for themselves at the same time.
“Athletically, both of those guys are extremely dynamic, which is what we look for in the slot position. Guys that have a combination of speed and twitch. Both are very competitive, love getting the ball in their hands, love winning.”
Bell, a Los Angeles native who played at Cathedral High, is familiar with Vaughns from the 7-on-7 circuit. The receivers spent the offseason working out at STARS (Sports Training and Rehabilitation Services) in Santa Ana.
“It’ll be nice to go and compete up against them, because he’s great, too, he’s a great athlete too,” Bell said. “So just seeing what he does against our defense and what I do against their defense. That’s going to be pretty good, pretty dope.”
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