Continuing our position-by-position look at what was expected, what was delivered and what comes next for the USC Trojans, we move to the running back spot.
What was expected
USC lost 101 receptions, 1,275 yards and 11 touchdowns went Michael Pittman left for the NFL following the 2019 season and there was somehow a thought that the USC wide receiver group could be even better in 2020.
Amon-Ra St. Brown was expected to take another step forward in his junior season, while Tyler Vaughns would set the all-time receptions record at USC, Drake London would pick up where he left off at the end of 2019, scoring a touchdown in each of the final five games of the season, and the Trojans would welcome impacts from Bru McCoy and true freshman Gary Bryant Jr.
What was delivered
London became arguably one of the top-five offensive players in the conference, catching 33 passes for a team-high 502 yards and three touchdowns. He also was responsible for two of the most impressive offensive plays of the season, catching a game-winning fourth-down pass against two defenders to beat Arizona State, and finishing off a 65-yard catch and run by outmaneuvering and outmuscling at least a half dozen UCLA defenders.
St. Brown started his season with back-to-back 100-yard games and caught at least five passes in all six games. He was also responsible for one of the lasting memories of the 2020 season, when he caught four touchdowns in the first quarter against Washington State. St. Brown led the team with 41 receptions and seven touchdowns — all seven coming in the final three games of the season.
Vaughns’ shot at the career receptions record was derailed by the shorter season, but he still recorded 33 receptions for 406 yards and three touchdowns. His signature game came against UCLA, when he had season-highs with eight receptions for 128 yards and a touchdown. His diving touchdown grab started the comeback and his final catch, going up and over two defenders, set up the game-winning touchdown.
Bru McCoy showed enough to think he’ll be a much bigger part of the offense next season, as he had 21 receptions for 236 yards and two touchdowns. The first helped start the comeback against Arizona State as he hauled in a deflected pass in the endzone. His best game came against Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship, with six receptions for 76 yards and a touchdown.
Gary Bryant Jr. caught just seven passes, but he was worked into the offense late in the season as a true freshman and the Trojans designed some plays specifically to get him involved. His biggest play was a kickoff return that helped set up the game-winning touchdown against UCLA, and he’ll be a problem for opponents on offense and special teams for the next few years.
The Trojans could lose both St. Brown and Vaughns if they decide to opt for the NFL Draft, and yet again no team will weep for USC considering what it will bring back at the position.
London will be expected to step up as a leader at his hybrid wide receiver/tight end position and McCoy and Bryant will both see their roles increase if indeed St. Brown and Vaughns don’t return. John Jackson III and Josh Jackson Jr. give the Trojans a solid pair of young receivers looking for more time next year. And Kyle Ford is someone who shouldn’t be forgotten. He’ll be coming off another ACL injury, but his talent level puts him in that discussion with London and McCoy.
The coaches have compared 2021 signee Michael Jackson III to St. Brown as a physical receiver who could play inside or out. He’ll be with the Trojans this spring. Fall enrollees Kyron Ware-Hudson and Joseph Manjack IV are ones to watch as well. Ware-Hudson is a physical receiver with a wide catch radius, while Manjack can be a speedy deep threat at 6-foot-4.
There’s little to worry about here if the Trojans lose their top two veterans. If either St. Brown or Vaughns elect to return, it’s again easily the top group in the conference and one of the best in the country.
USC could still finish off its 2021 recruiting class with four-star athlete Titus Mokiao-Atimalala, who has the Trojans among his six final schools.