How Tyler Vaughns went from the bench to a Sam Darnold favorite and stabilized USC’s receiving corps

Tyler Vaughns’ second touchdown catch against Arizona State was designed to work against most coverages.

In practice and in offensive meetings, offensive coordinator Tee Martin had discussed it as an attractive red-zone option against cover-zero, cover-3, cover-4. Watching from the booth, Martin saw that USC did not get cover-zero, cover-3 or cover-4. USC got cover-2 — “The worst possible coverage,” Martin said.

Quarterback Sam Darnold was not supposed to throw to Vaughns. He did anyway.

Martin remembers thinking, or maybe he muttered aloud, “It’s a pick, it’s a pick, it’s a pick … no, it’s a touchdown!”

Darnold fit the ball into a tiny, moving window. Vaughns absorbed a helmet-to-helmet blow. He still held on. In the booth, Martin felt as though Vaughns and USC’s receivers as a whole had crossed a threshold with Darnold.

“That was the moment that I felt he trusted them to that next level, like the Deontay [Burnett] throw in the Rose Bowl,” Martin said. “It was one of those plays that you’re like, ‘Oh, it’s gonna be bad … Oh, it’s really good!’ It shows me what his trust level is.”

USC receivers have traced a similar arc this season, from an oh-it’s-gonna-be-a-bad start to an oh-it’s-really-a-good performance a week ago. After beginning the season as the team’s biggest liability, the wideouts have, for several weeks, been among the team’s most consistent position groups.

Part of the credit belongs to Burnett, who has emerged as an attention-demanding top option. But the group’s progression has more closely mirrored Vaughns’.

Vaughns has caught at least five passes in each of the last five games. He caught six for 126 yards and two touchdowns against Arizona State. He has established himself as USC’s No. 2 option and now gives USC a full battery of dangerous options with Burnett, Steven Mitchell Jr. and an emerging Michael Pittman Jr.

Yet, Vaughns did not start at the beginning of the season. Many observers had expected Vaughns to win a starting role out of training camp. Vaughns himself said he “always expected to win it, just how I was working.”

USC was instead set on starting Pittman, Martin revealed this week, until an ankle injury sidelined Pittman for the first two weeks of the season. USC opted for Jalen Greene, who had more experience than Vaughns but failed to produce consistently. Vaughns cracked the starting lineup in Week 4 and, Martin said, has improved steadily with more playing time.

Martin, who also coaches the receivers, said he did not regret starting Vaughns earlier.

“He’s been playing all along,” Martin said. “The ball wouldn’t necessarily find him as much as it is now.”

Vaughns is a smooth, slippery route runner with sure hands and, at 6 feet 2 and 185 pounds, has become a surprising force after the catch and after this season. Coach Clay Helton compared him to former USC All-American receiver .

"He’s able to change directions so fluidly,” Helton said. “He kind of glides.”

Vaughns does it with one move in particular that, again, makes Martin think no, no, no … yes. After a catch, he often runs the wrong way — toward the line of scrimmage.

Vaughns’ first touchdown against Arizona State came on an innocuous out route. After the catch, he circled back a yard, as if running around a telephone pole, before breaking upfield. The defensive back looked like loose underwear in the spin cycle. He flailed at Vaughns and missed. Vaughns cruised and leaped into the end zone for a 42-yard score. The move — a quick circle backward and devastating cut — has become his signature.

"I’m trying to coach him out of it," Martin said, laughing. He’d rather Vaughns go straight upfield. "But he has good timing with it. So it’s hard. Sometimes it gets him tackled by three guys. Sometimes it makes people fall and he goes the distance like on Saturday night.”

Martin, in pushing for change, has his work cut out for him. The move was imprinted at a young age. Vaughns was a ballboy for the teams of his older brothers, Geoffrey and Aaren.

“What you see now is a mirror what I used to do,” Geoffrey said.

"It’s unexpected,” Vaughns said.

“I know my brothers’ moves like the back of my hand, and they still get me on it to this day,” Geoffrey said. “Once they take that first step, that’s it. Once you put in that dead leg, it’s a wrap.”

Like at USC, it took the coaching staff at Bishop Amat time to realize Vaughns’ potential. Coach Steve Hagerty said Vaughns is deceptive.

A receiver like Mitchell, whom Bishop Amat played against, runs “like he’s shot out of a cannon,” Hagerty said. “Tyler’s not that kid. What Tyler does, he’s such a violent runner, his body stops and starts most of the people that run faster than him, but they don’t have the ability to stop and restart like he does.”

When Vaughns circles back and accelerates forward “It looks like the guy covering him has never done it before,” Hagerty said.

Vaughns is so explosive, Hagerty once saw Vaughns get tackled when he made three moves, then plant again right back into the defender, who was luckily in the right position because he was still reacting to the first cut.

In other words, Hagerty said, it’s hard for anyone to harness Vaughns.

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