USC Football

Fall Camp Primer: The Special Teams Return Specialists

July 15, 2019

USC returns a full compliment of return specialists in 2019 with various levels of experience as either punt or kick return specialists, including Tyler Vaughns, Michael Pittman, Steven Carr, Amon-Ra St. Brown, Velus Jones, Greg Johnson. There’s also an injection of youth and speed arriving soon too, most notably speedster Kenan Christon.  That's a positive.  However, does it matter?  Will the return game be needed in order for the Trojans to have a successful season, or will it be asked to be more of a possession type of unit?  Those are not necessarily mutually-exclusive discussions.

It’s a goal with all football programs to field three well-coached units, but the mindset at USC over the years seemed to be, as long as the special teams unit didn't hurt us,  it was considered a win. With the current fair-catch rule on kickoffs in place putting the ball on the 25-yard line, we ask two questions.  

Should USC just look to give the offense the ball on the 25 and allow offensive coordinator Graham Harrell's Air Raid offense do the heavy lifting?  Or should head coach ClayHelton have a more aggressive approach and use the stacked roster of skill players in the return game? 

I've always been of the opinion unless the ball is kicked three plus yards deep into end zone and you have the talent of a USC , you take your shots!  I think this holds true in 2019, especially with the anticipation of a potent quick-strike offense.  The other preferable choice would be for the defense to be so good that the other team only kicks off one time per game.  Back to reality.

Now the question is, who should be the kickoff return specialists?  

Stephen Carr might be the most explosive of the group, but one is left to wonder if it would be more prudent to save the wear and tear on his body for his rushing attempts with his recent history of injuries. 

Last season Carr returned six kickoffs for 151 yards (25.2 avg) through nine games, while missing the last three games with an ankle injury.  Michael Pittman Jr has also seen spot action as a kick returner, however, he seems to be part of the punt rotation along with Tyler Vaughns who also has some kick off return experience.

With the recent news of Velus Jones returning to USC after exploring his transfer options, he brings with him his 52 career kickoff returns for 1,243 yards (23.9 avg). Those 1,243 kick off return yards puts him 9th all time in USC's history.  Jones best attribute is his blazing  straight ahead speed, so it makes sense for him to continue as USC's kick returner.  Jones has come close in the past to breaking one , but both he and the team are still looking for that elusive kick return for a touchdown.

Depending on how things shake out during fall camp, Greg Johnson is another great athlete on the roster who could find himself back there in the mix,  joining fellow speedy (RS) freshman corner back Issac Taylor-Stuart. 

Trojan fans are excited about the arrival of Kenan Christon from Madison High School in San Diego, CA.  The 5-10 185 pound running back was recently crowned the state's fastest high school athlete when he clocked in with a 10.30 in the 100 meters.  You can't teach that type of speed and that's something that USC can surely use.   If there is one place a freshman can look to make an immediate impact on, it’s special teams. 

Under the direction of John Baxter, USC's special teams have shown to be capable of being creative on the punt return and blocking kicks.  In 2018, USC blocked two field goals and two punts (1 returned for a TD) to rank ninth nationally in blocked kicks and the Trojans also returned another punt for a touchdown.

Earlier we asked whether USC should be aggressive or conservative in the return game.  One would think If Helton were to choose the side of caution and leave it to the offense, it would be with the punt return

Pittman has shown to be more than just a very good receiver for USC, he's also been a significant contributor on special teams.  In his career, he has 70 receptions for 1,244 yards (17.8 avg) with eight TDs.  On special teams he's added 14 tackles, 3 blocked punts, five punt returns for 156 yards (31.2 avg) including 1 TD, and 4 kickoff returns for 31 yards (7.8 avg)

2018 saw Tyler Vaughns eventually settle in as the Trojans top punt returner.  The sure handed receiver had 19 punt returns for 199 yards (10.5 avg) with 1 touchdown in 2018.  Tyler doesn't have blazing speed, however, he brings a certain wiggle to his game which makes him a difficult guy to square up while attempting to tackle.  Look for Tyler to continue with punt return duties this fall unless someone steps up out of nowhere.

Should Pittman Jr. or Vaughns falter, Amon-Ra St. Brown will be waiting in the wings who also saw action at punt returner last year as a true freshman.

So which side of the question do you stand?  Regardless of your approach there is no doubt that USC has plenty of options.


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