Perhaps no group on the USC football team received more criticism last season than the wide receivers.
General lack of consistent production and some drops plagued the young group.
A year older, stronger, wiser and faster, though, and the group is intent on erasing any bad memories from last season, replacing them with a much-improved 2008 campaign.
In the third installment of position previews, we'll look at the pass-catching corps.
While the Trojans didn't lose a single wide receiver to the NFL Draft, their top pass-catcher, tight end Fred Davis, is gone.
Davis led USC with 62 catches, 881 yards and eight touchdowns.
Next best, Vidal Hazelton grabbed 50 passes for 540 yards. Patrick Turner caught 48 passes, David Ausberry grabbed 34 and Ronald Johnson caught seven balls - averaging a team-best 15.7 yards-per catch.
That quartet of returning receivers tallied 25 starts between them - with senior Brad Walker starting opposite of Hazelton in the Rose Bowl.
Despite losing no major contributors other than Davis, the wide receivers and tight ends will look very different in 2008 thanks to some new additions.
Damian Williams sat out last season after transferring from Arkansas, where he starred as a freshman. With very good hands, good speed and sharp route running, Williams should become a key contributor in his sophomore season.
After coming in as a newcomer, Williams has stepped up in practices and in workouts, trying to show his teammates how hard he works.
"I was trying to lead by example. I was the new guy; it could be hard," Williams said. "Some guys learn by seeing, but with some guys, you just have to be vocal with. I've figured out which guys you have to push and be vocal with.
"Sometimes, I need people to pick me up too."
Former BYU basketball player Jordan Cameron also will be eligible this season.
Returning players like Hazelton, Johnson, Turner and Ausberry are all set on improving aspects of their game this season.
Hazelton, the fastest mouth on the team complimenting his quick feet, said working with receivers coach Johnnie Morton and the rest of the offensive coaching staff should elevate the group even more.
"That's big, especially by having Coach Morton out here," Hazelton said. "He's always the one giving us tips, telling us what we need to do. When the coaches are out here, it's a whole different story."
Turner, one of the best route runners on the team, is hoping to end his USC career on a positive note.
"I'm feeling good, and the rest of the receivers are looking good," Turner said. "We just have to stay focused going into (these final weeks), making sure we're staying on top of things. It's been a long ride this summer, and if we finish off strong, we'll get it done."
Johnson, perhaps the speediest wide receiver of the bunch, has been working on becoming more than just a straight-line runner.
"I want to be more than just a deep threat. I want to be a threat with the ball," Johnson said. "I want to make plays as soon as I catch the ball and still be able to be a deep threat."
Ausberry, the most physical receiver of the bunch, likes to bring an added toughness to the group. He also wants to make opposing tacklers pay for not wrapping him up.
"I'm working hard on trying to get more yards after the catch. I'm trying to break more tackles, get in and out of cuts and make things happen," Ausberry said. "That's part of it. The other part of it is learning more positions. It's learning how to do different things better. That's what we're trying to do.
"I'm having fun. I'm just trying to go out there and get some work in."
In addition to the transfers, the receiving group will also have Travon Patterson back after suffering a season-ending foot injury early last season. Patterson likely will be used in the slot, where he can take on players much bigger than he.
"I can see myself on the outside, but I can see myself more in the slot. I can get open there and work on the linebackers," Patterson said. "It's hard for them to stick me because I'm pretty much faster than all of them."
Garrett Green, a former quarterback, has shown his great hands all summer.
Freshman Brice Butler could also make an impact early. In just a few weeks on campus, the long-armed Butler has impressed his teammates with his superior route running and hunger for knowledge.
"I like having Brice around. I've never seen a freshman who can run routes like that," Ausberry said. "We all had to learn that stuff. He and PT, they're on another level."
"Brice wants to work, and he wants to learn. He's always in the coaches' offices, or he's always asking the older guys how to do things. We respect that."
The versatile D.J. Shoemate has looked good catching balls this summer. Shoemate could line up either in the backfield or in the slot, and he's showed the ability to shake loose in seven-on-seven workouts.
Shoemate also has a competitive streak that helps him going up against older, perhaps even better, players.
"I've never backed down from a challenge. I've always played with good competition and tried to exceed the competition," Shoemate said. "I try to bring something to the table every time I step on the field.
"I've always played with the older guys, and that really helped me understand the work ethic it'd take to get me where I am now."
Tight end Anthony McCoy has the best shot at being Davis' replacement at tight end on opening day. McCoy's being backed up by Jimmy Miller, Rhett Ellison and Cooper Stephenson.
McCoy's looked good in workouts at times, but he has struggled with drops during throwing drills.
Hot on the veteran tight ends' heels, freshman Blake Ayles has a shot to make a big impact early.
A complete player, Ayles has looked sharp in seven-on-seven drills
"I'm just going in there with the mindset of trying to get big and learn as much as possible right away," Ayles said. "(Anthony) McCoy's looking good, Jimmy Miller's looking good and so is Rhett (Ellison).
"It's going to be fun. I'm just going to try and compete and get some playing time and some special teams work in this year."
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