USC can't wait to exploit TE depth

LOS ANGELES -- The tight end position was thought to be one of the deepest positions on the Trojans roster, with four talented bodies eligible this spring and another on the way in the fall.

A funny thing happened during the first week of spring ball, however, as injuries quickly reduced the number of available players to one.

It was known that redshirt sophomore Christian Thomas was going to miss spring drills after hip surgery early last fall. On the first day of practice, though, redshirt sophomore Xavier Grimble (turf toe) and redshirt freshman Junior Pomee (hamstring) both went down with injuries that caused them to sit out the next two sessions.

Suddenly the Trojans were left with redshirt sophomore Randall Telfer to handle the first-string reps, the second-string reps and any other reps that were needed, although depth has been added in recent days in the form of multiple walk-ons.

"We were a little unfortunate on that first day, with Xavier and Junior going down, so Randall has kind of had to fend for himself," USC tight ends coach Justin Mesa said. "The good news is that Randall has been a warrior. He learned how to work hard from Rhett Ellison, and he's following that lead real well."

It was a reminder of just how quickly things can turn in college football, a position of great depth one minute can be a spot of concern the next. Grimble continues to be on the sidelines with his injury, while Pomee missed Tuesday's session due to a death in his family and is hopeful to return to practice soon.

It's not a coincidence that the Trojans have developed such a deep and strong set of tight ends, as the position has become a valuable commodity in recent years for the versatility and mismatch options it can create.

A good tight end can do many things -- he can block, he can catch and he can run good routes. If a team has a player who can do those things well, it allows a play-caller the flexibility to utilize them in different formations and varying roles. Examples of increased tight end roles recently include the Stanford Cardinal at the college level and the New England Patriots, among other teams, in the NFL.

Kiffin had taken note of this trend and likes what he sees. The versatility of a good tight end was a huge benefit to the Trojans last year, when expected senior starter Ellison was moved to the vacant fullback spot with good results. Kiffin moved little-used wide receiver Jordan Cameron to tight end in 2010, and Cameron ended up being selected in the fourth round of the NFL draft by the Cleveland Browns.

"We're fortunate at USC to have tight ends who can do a lot of things," Mesa said. "Coach Kiffin knows how to be creative to put them in different positions to make plays, and they are smart enough to pick it up. "

As the Trojans look to the future, the cupboard is certainly well-stocked.

Telfer ended the 2011 season as the No. 3 receiver on the USC stat sheet with 26 catches for 273 yards (10.5 yards per catch) and five touchdowns.

"Randall is a guy who doesn't have a ton of football experience so I think we can really develop his game," Mesa said. "He's been limited on his mental errors this spring, so I'm very happy with that. He's only going to get better."

Grimble was also an effective weapon in 2011, as he finished the season with 15 catches for 144 yards (9.6 yards per catch) and four touchdowns.

"Xavier is a natural athlete," Mesa said. "He's a smooth route runner and a playmaker so it will be good to get him back and see what he can do for us."

Thomas came in with both Telfer and Grimble in the class of 2010 and was the only one of the three to see time as a true freshman, when he shuttled back and forth between tight end and defensive end. Thomas had six tackles while appearing in all 13 games that year before being moved back to tight end in 2011. He appeared in a pair of early season games in 2011 -- he had three special teams tackles -- before injuring his hip and undergoing surgery. He was later granted a redshirt year.

"Christian is a unique athlete," Mesa said. "He's the kind of guy you draw plays up for to help create mismatches. We can't wait to get him back on the field."

Pomee was injured during fall camp in 2011 and underwent foot surgery, which forced him to sit out the entire year.

"Pomee is the hardest working guy that we have," Mesa said. "We're still waiting to really see what he can do on the field, but he surprised people in the offseason conditioning sessions with his explosive ability. He's got a bright future ahead of him."

More tight end talent will arrive in the fall, as the Trojans will add Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick, the No. 1 rated tight end in the 2012 class.

"Jalen is very similar to Xavier Grimble in terms of being a natural athlete," Mesa said. "What surprised us about him was his toughness. He's also real coachable and a good learner. He's going to fit well in this group."

It's a group that knows they have a chance to accomplish special things at USC, and they aren't shy about setting their goals at a high level.

"We want to be the best tight ends to ever play at USC," Telfer said. "We can do so many things in this offense, and the sky is the limit in terms of where we can take this."

Before reaching for the sky the USC tight end group first will need to get healthy. After that, anything is possible.