It may be time to re­mem­ber his name

Los Angeles Times - - SPORTS - By Zach Helfand zach.helfand@la­times.com Twitter: @zhelfand

When tight end Daniel Ima­torb­hebhe stepped into the USC locker room for the first time as a schol­ar­ship ath­lete, he found the name­plate got his last name wrong.

Yes, “Ima­torb­hebhe” is a dif­fi­cult last name, he said. But still.

“Coming out of high school I wasn’t re­ally given a chance by too many peo­ple,” Ima­torb­hebhe said. “Even last year, I started third on the depth chart. I know me and [Deon­tay Bur­nett] for sure talk about how we came here, we were blueshirts, peo­ple didn’t know who we were. We walked past here, me­dia peo­ple would push us, ‘JuJu! Adoree’!’ No­body wanted to talk to us. No­body knew who we were.”

Ima­torb­hebhe gained a mea­sure of re­spect last sea­son. He usu­ally af­fected the game more than his mod­est stat line — 17 re­cep­tions for 250 yards and four touch­downs — would sug­gest.

Now, Ima­torb­hebhe stands on a precipice of sorts. USC’s out­look at re­ceiver is un­set­tled aside from Bur­nett. But con­cerns over break­ing in new re­ceivers could be tem­pered by one pos­si­bil­ity: One of quar­ter­back Sam Darnold’s fa­vorite pass catch­ers could end up be­ing the tight end.

Ima­torb­hebhe, who trans­ferred from Florida, de­vel­oped an in­stant rap­port with Darnold on the scout team two sea­sons ago. The pair, plus Bur­nett, had a stand­ing bas­ket­ball game ev­ery week­end. Over time, the three found they could an­tic­i­pate the other’s moves on the field. Soon, on the scout team, Darnold and Ima­torb­hebhe tor­mented the start­ing de­fense.

Last sea­son, the chem­istry trans­lated to the games. But Ima­torb­hebhe’s play­ing time was lim­ited. He en­joyed a minia­ture break­out against Wash­ing­ton, when he caught five passes for 78 yards and a score, but he oth­er­wise never ex­ceeded two catches in a game.

This sea­son, Ima­torb­hebhe will see the field plenty. And he pre­dicted USC’s schemes will rely on tight ends more heav­ily.

“The of­fi­cial an­swer is: If they throw it we’re gonna catch it,” Ima­torb­hebhe said. “But you could even see in in­stalls, they trust us a lot more. We’ve got some re­ally cool stuff we put in, build­ing off the stuff we did last year. So I think we’re go­ing to be a big part of what we do. And I only say that be­cause that’s what I was told, not be­cause I’m think­ing we’ve ar­rived.”

Block­ing par­tially dic­tated Ima­torb­hebhe’s low start on the depth chart last year. Ima­torb­hebhe was a slot re­ceiver in high school, tall and skinny. He added bulk (he is of­fi­cially listed at 235 pounds, though he says he is 10 pounds heav­ier) in the last two years.

Coach Clay Hel­ton prefers to re­cruit re­ceivers he can con­vert into tight ends. Tyler Pe­tite, USC’s other tight end op­tion, was also a re­ceiver in high school.

“The No. 1 thing we look for in a tight end is can you push the ball ver­ti­cal?” Hel­ton said. “We re­ally feel we can teach both run block­ing and pass pro­tec­tion. But it’s hard to teach route run­ning and speed.”

Ima­torb­hebhe, he said, can ex­tend de­fenses. Darnold uses him to pick on mis­matches.

“He kind of re­minds me of a Gronk, where you can split him out and get a matchup that you like,” Darnold said, re­fer­ring to New Eng­land Pa­tri­ots tight end Rob Gronkowski. “If he’s matched up on a cor­ner, you’re go­ing to use his strength. If he’s matched up with a line­backer, you’re go­ing to use his speed. And even some­times he’s faster than cor­ners.”

Ima­torb­hebhe has been lim­ited in prac­tice with a hip flexor in­jury that Hel­ton is treat­ing with cau­tion. “I don’t want it to turn into some­thing where we look up and it’s a four- or five-week thing,” Hel­ton said.

When Ima­torb­hebhe is fully back, he is one of USC’s best of­fen­sive weapons.

Ima­torb­hebhe has, he said, al­ready made an im­pres­sion. He noted that when his younger brother, Josh, a re­ceiver, ar­rived at USC last year, his name was spelled cor­rectly ev­ery­where.

Who was that?

Ear­lier this week, Hel­ton had noted that run­ning back Ron­ald Jones II had im­proved as a pass catcher.

Dur­ing the full team por­tion of prac­tice Thurs­day, Darnold dropped a snap, scooped and scram­bled, then lofted a high pass on a wheel route down the side­line. The re­ceiver caught it over the de­fender, in stride, for a touch­down. Squeals sounded from the side­line.

“Who was that?” safety Jamel Cook yelled. “Rojo?” It was, in­deed, Jones. “There you go,” Hel­ton said.

Quick hits

USC will hold its first fully padded prac­tice of train­ing camp Friday. … Corner­back Ajene Har­ris had two in­ter­cep­tions Thurs­day, both against quar­ter­back Matt Fink. … Right tackle Chuma Edoga was pulled with ham­string tight­ness.

Luis Sinco Los Angeles Times

DANIEL IMA­TORB­HEBHE had only one catch against California last sea­son, but it was this touch­down.

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