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2020 NFL Draft: Evolution of Michael Pittman Jr. at USC Carries Him into the Pros

2020 NFL Draft: Evolution of Michael Pittman Jr. at USC Carries Him into the Pros

2020 NFL Draft: Evolution of Michael Pittman Jr. at USC Carries Him into the Pros

From struggling just to see the field — let alone catch a pass — to playing a critical role in USC's first conference championship in nine years, Michael Pittman Jr. evolved into a college star over just a few weeks in 2017.

That same trajectory carries Pittman into the NFL draft a little more than two years and almost 200 receptions later.

Now, a USC wide receiver product embarking on an NFL career isn't especially unique on its own; nor is a Trojan pass catcher going in the first two rounds, as Pittman could in 2020. Robert Woods, Marqise Lee, Nelson Agholor and a former USC teammate with whom some mock drafts have Pittman reuniting in Pittsburgh, JuJu Smith-Schuster, all went in the first two rounds since 2013.

When current Trojan Tyler Vaughns called USC "Wide Receiver U." last November, he wasn't spouting empty rhetoric. Pittman's forthcoming draft selection only furthers the legacy.

However, the path Pittman took to this point, on the precipice of selection, deviated.

Murmurings of a player transferring bounce among media sometimes, but publicizing them without substantiating is ill-advised. To suggest Pittman could have left USC before his breakout performance against Stanford in the 2017 Pac-12 Championship Game isn't baseless speculation nor an educated assumption, though.

After starting the campaign with an ankle injury, Pittman's lack of production resulted in his NFL-veteran father publicly voicing frustration. The elder Pittman revisited his sentiment with the Los Angeles Times in the weeks following the Pac-12 Championship Game.

No, Pittman was not ordained for greatness the moment he arrived at USC, totaling six receptions in 2016 and waiting until midway through October 2017 before making his first contributions. But the wait seemed to fuel him.

Few players were responsible for more memorable moments in the program's past two-and-a-half seasons, like his 72-yard punt return touchdown (thanks to some choreographed misdirection) against rival UCLA in 2017:

And his victory-sealing play in the subsequent Pac-12 title game.

His growth as a playmaker culminated in 2019 with 1,275 yards and 11 touchdown receptions, the former USC's highest output since Smith-Schuster in 2015 and the latter, the most for a Trojan since Agholor scored 12 in '14.

Pittman's NFL potential was perhaps best encapsulated last season in an upset of Utah. Pittman dismantled one of the best defenses in all of college football for 232 yards on 10 catches, utilizing both his speed to get behind defensive backs, and his 6-foot-4 frame to go over the top of them. A 77-yard scoring grab stands out in a single game that was enough to fill out Pittman's entire draft reel.

As Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham succinctly put it: "Michael Pittman did a number on us."

Quarterback Matt Fink, thrown into the lineup after an early injury to Kedon Slovis, described Pittman as, "a monster. You can’t guard him."

That Pittman's defining performance came with Fink at quarterback offers some poetic symmetry to the receiver's own development, as underscored in Pittman's words following that game.

"I told him to stick to it, just wait for his time. Lo and behold, his time is now," Pittman said.

Likewise, after a rocky start at USC, Pittman's time to add his name to the program's illustrious list of NFL drafted receivers has come.

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.