USC’s 2021 fall camp kicks off with the first full practice on Friday afternoon and we’ll be previewing camp this week with a position-by-position look at the biggest storyline, notable new and returning names and what to expect during the 14 fall camp and 25 total practices before USC starts its season against San Jose State in the Coliseum on Sept. 4.
The tight ends
USC tight ends caught 39 passes in back-to-back seasons in 2016 and 2017. They then went on to catch 43 passes combined in the 2018, 2019 and 2020 seasons. Yes, the production from Drake London out of the inside receiver/tight end spot should somewhat be factored into the production for this unit, but at this point it's a tough sell to say London is a tight end, and the Trojans have too much talent in the tight end room to not find some production here.
It starts with a couple of veterans returning for their fifth seasons, in Erik Krommenhoek and Josh Falo. Krommenhoek is the leader of the position and has been the most productive over the past few seasons. He finished the 2020 season with nine receptions for 59 yards and two touchdowns. Falo has dealt with injuries throughout much of his USC career, but he's a talented pass catching option when healthy. Those two will need to keep progressing because there is a big group of players behind them looking to make significant impacts this fall.
Jude Wolfe looked like he'd be used in the rotation heavily early last season but a broken foot against Washington State ended his season. USC fans might finally get a look at Ethan Rae, who missed his first two seasons at USC while recovering from a knee injury suffered in high school. He got a little run during spring ball before shutting things down, but looks as though he could be ready to go for fall camp. Both Wolfe and Rae possess the body and athletic ability the USC coaches say they want at the position, able to contribute at the line of scrimmage in the run game and also get downfield and attack a defense in the passing game.
But it's two newcomers who will be the most interesting to watch early during fall camp. Redshirt junior Malcolm Epps brings all 6-foot-6, 245 pounds of him over from Texas, where he contributed as a tight end and wide receiver. Quarterback Kedon Slovis talked about his surprising speed and quickness to go along with that frame. He found much more success as an outside receiver than at tight end while playing for the Longhorns, so it's worth watching to see what kind of impact he makes inside for the Trojans. Joining Epps in his first real practices with USC will be true freshman Michael Trigg, a 6-foot-4, 245-pound prospect from Florida who also plans to play basketball for the Trojans. He is absolutely a 2021 newcomer who could make an impact as a true freshman with his ability in the passing game to go up and get the ball in coverage. His athleticism is a major plus and makes him potentially more of a quick-impact guy than fellow true freshman Lake McRee, but McRee was at USC for spring ball and looked every bit the part of a veteran. He has solid hands and made a few grabs that stood out. He also took on a few big hits and popped back up, showing the toughness he brings to the position. Both he and Trigg will need to prove themselves as blockers before they can be counted on to fill big roles in the offense though.
In fact, all the tight ends will need to improve their performance in the run game this fall and that is absolutely the biggest area worth watching. There were times last season the tight ends could get up into that second level and wall off a linebacker to create big running lanes for the backs. But there seemed to be far more times when the tight end would get stuffed at the line or driven back by a defensive lineman, or wouldn't be able to pull across the formation quick enough to cut off a rushing defender, and run plays would get blown up in the backfield. Finding more consistency there has to be a priority for this spot during fall camp, because they're all talented pass catchers when asked to work downfield or against linebackers.
A few walk-ons give the Trojans even more depth there, with Kohl Hollinquest, the son of former USC linebacker/safety Lamont Hollinquest and godson to Willie McGinest, as well as Grant Jones and Sean Mahoney. Jones has played linebacker and running back before moving to tight end. Both he and Mahoney were Co-Service Team Players of the Year in 2019, Mahoney on offense and Jones on defense.