Randall Telfer (82) and Xavier Grimble (86) give USC a potent combination… (Wally Skalij and Gina Ferazzi…)
Xavier Grimble hears it often from friends and USC fans. Randall Telfer gets the same question.
Why don't they throw you the ball more?
The USC tight ends, both fourth-year juniors, are regarded as NFL prospects, "potentially premier players," Coach Lane Kiffin said.
But on a Trojans team last season that featured All-American wide receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee, Grimble and Telfer often appeared underutilized or overlooked.
Grimble caught 29 passes, Telfer 12.
Those totals could increase this season with Woods and quarterback Matt Barkley having gone to the NFL and the less experienced Max Wittek or Cody Kessler starting in Barkley's place.
Grimble, Telfer and sophomore Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick are the Trojans' only scholarship tight ends. Junior Pomee, who played last season as a redshirt freshman, is no longer in the program.
Asked separately if they were frustrated last season by not being targeted for more passes, both Grimble and Telfer smiled.
"Frustrated is not the word for me," Grimble said. "I look at my development. There's other guys that maybe caught more balls than I did. ... But when it comes to being an all-around tight end, our coaching staff has set us up to move on.
"They're putting us in a good place."
Said Telfer: "If we can get the ball into the hands of the playmakers, I don't mind. As long as we win."
The tight ends hope to parlay team success into professional opportunity.
Since 1969, 22 USC tight ends have been selected in the NFL draft.
Bob Klein was a first-round pick in 1969, Charles Young in 1973. Fred Davis, the 2007 John Mackey Award winner as college football's top tight end, was a second-round pick in 2008.
Two USC tight ends have been chosen in the same draft three times — in 1969 when the Los Angeles Rams selected Klein and the New Orleans Saints picked Bob Miller in the sixth round, in 1981 when the Saints took Hoby Brenner in the third round and the Pittsburgh Steelers chose James Hunter in the ninth, and in 2011 when the Cleveland Browns took Jordan Cameron in the fourth round and the Oakland Raiders took David Ausberry in the seventh.
Ausberry played receiver at USC but spent a spring working at tight end and is listed at both positions on USC's all-time roster.
Multiple USC tight ends could be drafted in 2014 or 2015 if Grimble, Telfer and Cope-Fitzpatrick perform as projected.
"In my opinion, Xavier and Randall are two NFL tight ends, already, still in college," Kessler said. "Jalen has those two guys to learn from. ... When you see him play you see flashes of Randall or something Xavier would do."
Grimble, who attended Las Vegas Bishop Gorman High, and Telfer, from Rancho Cucamonga, were part of a 2010 recruiting class that also included tight end Christian Thomas.
"Everybody was like, 'Why are you going there? They've got two tight ends,' " Grimble said. "I said, 'Look man, I want to play at the next level too, so I feel like I've got to compete wherever I go and find out right here in college if I was good enough.' "
Thomas played tight end and defensive end as a true freshman but was slowed by injuries over the next two seasons and left the program.
The 6-foot-5 Grimble redshirted in 2010 amid speculation that at 265 pounds he was too lumbering and was destined to bulk up and become a tackle.
Grimble heard the whispers.
"I knew with a college program and me working hard, I could shape up and be just like I want to be," said Grimble, who slimmed down to 250.
Grimble caught 15 passes in 2011, four for touchdowns. Last year he scored five touchdowns.
"I got a chance to develop and get better each year," he said. "I came along slow but gradual and on a good pace. I got a lot of tools early and I keep sharpening them."
Telfer, 6-4 and 250 pounds, also redshirted in 2010 before breaking out in 2011. He caught 26 passes, five for touchdowns.
But last season he struggled through an ankle injury and also dropped several passes. Telfer scored four touchdowns but had only 100 receiving yards.
"A lot of that is my fault," he said. "I got injured and coming back it was hard for me to get back to full speed.
"So I'm working on pass catching and blocking to become an all-around better tight end."
The 6-4, 255-pound Cope-Fitzpatrick, who played at Rocklin Whitney High in Northern California, was utilized mainly as a blocker last season. He caught two passes.
With Telfer working through training camp injuries and Grimble absent a few times while attending classes, Cope-Fitzpatrick has received plenty of receiving opportunities.
"The guy's there, every day, performing," Kiffin said.
Like former tight end Rhett Ellison, who took them under his wing when they were young players, Grimble and Telfer have done the same for Cope-Fitzpatrick.
Now, all three hope to provide whatever is necessary to help the Trojans rebound from last season's 7-6 finish.
"I'm like a little brother trying to learn," Cope-Fitzpatrick said. "They've been really great mentors."