Trojans plumb depths at tight end

LOS ANGELES -- Watching the Trojans offense play with no scholarship tight ends available on Saturday afternoon in the Coliseum against Utah was like trying to watch a one-armed fighter survive in the ring.

Just ask longtime observers and historians of Trojans football and they can’t recall a time when the Men of Troy were in such a vulnerable tight end state. Injuries have decimated the Trojans depth at a position that has its own storied history with the likes of Bob Klein, Charles “The Tree” Young, Hoby Brenner, Jim Obradovich, Paul Green, Scott Galbraith and 2007 Mackey Award winner Fred Davis.

It’s no wonder that without juniors Xavier Grimble and Randall Telfer manning their familiar blocking tight end positions, the Trojans could manage only 30 yards on the ground and were limited in receiving options.

In fact, whether it’s blocking or going out for a pass, the absence of all three scholarships tight ends was very apparent, as the Trojans struggled to 19-3 victory over Utah, thanks to a four field-goal performance by junior kicker Andre Heidari.

This Friday night the Trojans have a real challenge against coach Mike Riley’s improved Oregon State Beavers, who have had a recent habit of taking down the Men of Troy whenever they visit tiny Reser Stadium.

If Grimble, Telfer, and/or Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick can’t go in Corvallis, the Trojans could be in for a real offensive scoreboard struggle against the high-scoring Beavers.

The Trojans are averaging 24.6 point per game on offense but have scored only one scrimmage touchdown their past two games. Considering that Oregon State’s offense is averaging 40.1 points per game, the Trojans might be hard-pressed to stay up with the Beavers’ potent offensive numbers.

So, if the Trojans top three tight ends are again unavailable or limited, interim head coach Ed Orgeron and offensive coordinator Clay Helton might again be forced to go with either converted junior tackle Nathan Guertler or junior walk-on Chris Willson.

In the case of Willson, last year at this time he was a quarterback at Wake Forrest before transferring to Troy. Not seeing a future for himself in Winston-Salem, N.C., with injuries and homesickness playing a part in his decision, Willson decided to continue his education in religion at USC and began this season as a backup quarterback -- until the great tight end deficit.

The great irony of Chris Willson is that although he was a quarterback at Wake Forest, he actually never played in a game, although the 6-foot-6 athlete was an active pitcher on the Demon Deacons’ baseball team.

It’s not like the move to Southern California was a crapshoot for Willson. He grew up in West Covina and attended traditional power Santa Fe Springs St. Paul High School, where he was the football team captain as a senior in 2009 and was named a three-time all-league scholar athlete.

Willson got his first taste of action on Saturday afternoon as a Trojans tight end, and afterward coming out of the locker room he was like the proverbial little kid in a candy store.

“It was like surrealistic,” Willson said. “I just sat in my locker and thought about it. I just wanted to savor the moment. It was a blessing.”

The big moment for Willson was when he actually took a reception from Trojans quarterback Cody Kessler and the whole process seemed like a fantasy. Never has a 5-yard gain seemed liked a 75-yard Coliseum scoring reception.

“We made eye contact with each other and I knew he would throw me the ball,” said Willson, who was reliving an unexpected pass reception now worth a thousand memories.

As teammates filed by afterward, Willson’s eyes gazed like he was sitting in his own private theatre watching the climax of a great epic over and over again.

“I could see the ball coming to me like it was in slow motion,” recounted Willson, who has put on 15 pounds since his arrival at Troy.

Of course playing tight end isn’t just about catching passes. There is the physical challenge of surviving along the line of scrimmage in the area known as “The Pit,” and that in itself is quite an adjustment.

“I am a pretty big guy [245 pounds] and being on our scout team playing against guys like Devon Kennard and Morgan Breslin has helped,” said Willson, who seems to be adapting to the physicality of his new position.

Needless to say, Willson and his fellow walk-on tight ends have gotten encouragement from the scholarship tight ends, who have become mentors during this ongoing crisis.

“They have said to us, ‘Now you younger brothers have to help and step up,’” said Willson, who obviously was appreciative of the guidance from Grimble and Telfer.

So while Willson was making strides during Saturday’s game, the injury jinx struck yet again to the tight ends when fellow walk-on Shane Sullivan, a junior out of Orange (Calif.) Lutheran High, went down with a knee injury. It seemed all too unreal.

What isn’t unreal is with the 2013 Trojans in need of two more victories to become bowl eligible and still mathematically in the hunt for the Pac-12 South Division title, there is also hope that the tight end position will soon tighten up.