Oregon returns every wide receiver who caught a pass in 2019 with one exception: grad transfer X-receiver Juwan Johnson, now with the Saints. The Ducks have a few options to replace him on the outside, and returning redshirt sophomore #80 WR Addison will probably get the nominal starting job across from #3 WR Jo. Johnson at Z.
But figuring out the rotation at outside receiver and looking to the season after next means parsing a stacked WR room, including returners #88 WR Crocker, #86 WR Wilhoite, and #85 WR Waters - the first two are 4-stars and the last a high 3-star, though I like his high school tape the best. We haven’t seen any of these three take the field yet in college since there have been some injuries in that group.
I think the most likely to break into the rotation, however, is the high 4-star transfer from USC, #2 WR D. Williams (he wore that jersey number in Los Angeles as well). At 6’5”, 209 lbs he has ideal measurements for the position and got some meaningful play during his 2018 true freshman season before entering the transfer portal early in the 2019 season and sitting out the rest of last year.
I was able to find about 50 reps that Williams took at USC, all in the final four games of 2018 plus the week 2 game against Stanford in 2019, just before he announced his transfer. I reviewed the other 2018 USC games I had in my library plus the week 1 game against Fresno St last year, but didn’t spot Williams taking any plays from scrimmage in those. USC’s website claims that Williams played in all 12 games in 2018, but I suspect that in the first eight it was just on the punt coverage team.
Williams’ significant debut as a true freshman came in the week 10 game at Oregon St, when starting X-receiver Michael Pittman, Jr. (older brother of Oregon’s Mycah) got a shoulder injury in the first quarter and Williams took over for him. Here were Williams’ three targets on his first drive as a college player:
(Reminder - you can right-click or long-press any video to play it in ¼ or ½ speed)
The narrative of this drive was recounted to the media in a charming manner, with Williams gaining confidence in his ability to beat the DB with some encouragement from his quarterback, ultimately resulting in a long touchdown catch. Personally, I find this story to be a bit precious and think the first ball was simply underthrown and should have been placed on the outside shoulder, but reader, you are given to your own conclusions.
Current Trojans OC Harrell uses the X-receiver in a relatively small number of routes in his version of the Air Raid. But when Williams was playing in 2018, USC fans referred to their playcalling as the “gumbo offense”, meaning it had a little bit of everything thrown in it (nota bene: this is not actually how a proper gumbo is made). As such, Williams wound up giving us a nice variety of film despite only a handful of targets:
- :00 - This should look familiar to Oregon fans, the RPO slant was perhaps Justin Herbert’s favorite throw to Juwan Johnson last year. A crisp break gets the DB’s momentum going the wrong way and Williams picks up 17 yards after the catch, 7 of which come after breaking a tackle, for a 29-yard total gain.
- :10 - I believe this is the only bad rep I saw Williams take as a pass-catcher. I think the ball might have been tipped and that’s why it’s a little off-target (there’s no point in putting it behind the receiver and at his knees, as the previous clip showed) but still, two hands on the ball means this should have been a catch.
- :17 - A short curl in the flat is a bread-and-butter play in both the 2018 and 2019 USC offenses, and Williams serves it up nicely - he hooks inside the backer and between the DBs, quickly shows his number, makes the catch and gets upfield through a tackle for a couple extra yards.
- :25 - The bobble is weird on such a basic throw, but Williams keeps cool and brings it in. More impressive is that he feels the DB overplaying his tackle attempt too hard to the inside so he flips around outside for extra yards, and stiffarms the safety for some more. The all-22 on this clip shows off some pretty good body control.
Williams’ underutilization means we need to look at some plays in which he wasn’t targeted to assess his route-running. I liked what I saw, but these are going to require a sharp eye:
- :00 - Williams is on the top of the screen and we don’t get to see anything except his takeoff, since USC’s remarkably inadequate offensive line gives up a sack and that draws the camera’s attention. But that takeoff is incredible; his stutter-go has completely smoked the CB. We can see all 11 defenders at the snap because the Beavs have no deep safety - if the QB made the throw this would be a 48-yard touchdown.
- :09 - Again Williams is on the top of the screen, not the slot receiver to whom the ball is thrown. He’s fighting with the DB who’s trying to force him out, and I don’t think he’s winning - that shove would probably be flagged as OPI by Pac-12 refs, and he still winds up stepping out of bounds.
- :15 - This is a 2019 play, and based on film study of the rest of Harrell’s offense I believe that this mesh concept is designed for Williams to stop just after he clears the hash marks. But he sees his quarterback is in trouble and instead keeps running to make himself a dumpoff outlet. The QB probably should have flipped it to him for a quick 5 yards and 1st down instead of trying this deep throw on the move to a TE against one of the league’s best corners.
- :41 - Another scramble drill — fairly common given USC’s line — but this one has a nice overhead angle showing Williams recognizing the trouble and accelerating to get himself in a position to help. It would have been dumb to throw it to him but the middle linebacker is forced to peel back to cut off the throw to Williams, making it an easier throw to the sideline.
A majority of snaps that I saw Williams play were designed rushes, and because of a fixation on strongside running at USC, a lot of them weren’t to his side of the field and so we don’t have a huge number of meaningful run-blocks to evaluate. What I did see was pretty effective - I don’t think this is his favorite thing to do, but he gets after it when it’s his job, and I don’t have any bad reps on film. Here’s a sample:
- :00 - Good positioning to start out, since his job is to pull the DB away from the sideline and then seal him off. Great run with the back the rest of the way to keep him clean into the endzone.
- :25 - Williams is on the top of the screen, and here he’s simply doing his job - carrying the DB downfield, then getting in his way so he can’t help with the tackle.
- :32 - Surprisingly, this isn’t the only play where I saw Williams blocking two different DBs.
- :41 - I’m not sure this is how the blocking on the play is designed, but I sure like the effort driving the DB out of bounds, especially that last shove to clear him out of the back’s way. (This play is called back on a hold by the LT, unrelated to Williams’ blocking.)
Altogether, I think Williams acquitted himself well during his time on the field as a true freshman, and find it puzzling that he only got five targets in the almost two full games that the X-receiver ahead of him on the depth chart was out with an injury.
I chalk this up to screwy coaching decisions rather than any deficiency I saw in Williams’ play - the four games at the end of the 2018 season were after head coach Helton relieved his then-OC Tee Martin of playcalling duties and took over himself in that 5-7 performance. And in 2019, USC used (incredibly) an even tighter rotation of a small number of WRs than in 2018. Indeed, one of the biggest concerns I noted in my summer preview of USC’s next season is how little experienced depth they have at receiver beyond the three returning starters, which is surprising given how well they usually recruit the position. That’s in no small part due to multiple experienced and talented pass-catchers transferring from the program.
With a more reasonable and accomplished coaching staff in Eugene, I expect Williams will see a lot more time as an outside receiver for the Ducks.