USC fortifies tight end spot with five-star Duce Robinson, but will he play football?

Earlier this week, before his outlook at the position would brighten considerably, Lincoln Riley was asked how he felt about USC’s depth at the tight end. The coach’s eyebrows raised.

“Right now? Today? Not good!” Riley said, with a laugh.

USC was down to just one other scholarship tight end in camp, and he’d just been converted from linebacker. Another tight end was injured. A fourth wouldn’t come until fall. The depth chart was bleak. But Riley waved off any sense of concern.

“It’s going to be good,” he said, “it’s just currently at this moment right now not very good.”

It stayed that way for all of two days. On Thursday, five-star tight end Duce Robinson, the nation’s top prospect at the position, signed with USC, choosing the Trojans over a cadre of blue blood programs such as Georgia, Alabama and Oregon. The top remaining recruit in the 2023 class, Robinson gives the Trojans yet another dynamic weapon that could make waves in Riley’s offense as soon as this fall.

That is, if he isn’t playing pro baseball by then.

A two-way star in both sports at Pinnacle High in Arizona, whose size in the batter’s box at 6 foot 6, 225 pounds has solicited comparisons to New York Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge, Robinson is expected to be selected somewhere in the upcoming MLB draft in July. How high could dramatically alter his future professional path — and his plans at USC.

“Duce’s ultimate goal is to play both professionally,” Pinnacle coach Dana Zupke told The VFAB. “He really wants to try to challenge that. It’s such a feat to be able to do. It’s such a rarity, someone successful in both sports. That’s really what he wants to accomplish.”

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The plans for accomplishing that, Zupke thinks, “are cloudier than they once were.”

Robinson has previously suggested he’d prefer to sign a professional baseball contract and work out an agreement with that organization for him to play college football. If he’s selected high enough, he could very well spurn USC entirely. If he’s drafted lower than his liking, Robinson could presumably attempt to play both college football and college baseball next season, delaying his pro declaration a couple of years.

Actually following through on plans to play two sports isn’t always so easy. But others have certainly attempted it, including two fellow pass-catchers at USC.

Wideout Mario Williams has suggested he will play with USC’s baseball team in 2023, but has yet to report. Walk-on USC receiver Austin Overn has already become a sensation on the Trojans baseball team this season, leading the team in batting average through March, but is unlikely to make much of a splash on the football field.

Robinson’s pedigree suggests he could make a similarly significant influence at USC, even if he doesn’t arrive until this summer. Trojan tight ends haven’t made much of a mark in more than a decade, including last season, when they caught just 17 passes in 14 games. Six of those receptions, however, went for scores.

Riley said he’d been impressed with the performance this spring by Lake McRee, the only healthy USC tight end with any actual game experience who’s currently practicing.

“Lake is playing at a high level,” Riley said. “He’s really improved.”

But Robinson is another level of elite athlete, capable of stretching the field as well as using his physicality in the red zone. As a senior at Pinnacle, he averaged better than 19 yards per reception and reeled in 14 touchdowns.

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The 17th-rated football recruit in the 2023 class, according to 247Sports, Robinson, at the very least, marks a major victory for Riley on the recruiting trail, as the Trojans will finalize their 2023 class with three prospects among the nation’s top 20.

None might be more influential than Robinson. Though, it’s also possible that the top tight end never plays a down at USC.

Those plans won’t be decided until the summer. For now, Riley could bask in the afterglow of a major recruiting victory, knowing he’d fortified the future of the tight end position for the time being, at least.

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