USC’s Nelson Agholor catches on at wide receiver

Wide receiver Nelson Agholor got to show off his pass-catching skills at the NFL Combine after grabbing 104 passes for 1,313 yards and 12 touchdowns in his junior season at Southern Cal.
Wide receiver Nelson Agholor got to show off his pass-catching skills at the NFL Combine after grabbing 104 passes for 1,313 yards and 12 touchdowns in his junior season at Southern Cal. The Associated Press

It might be difficult to believe now, given the way Southern California receiver Nelson Agholor sliced through collegiate defenses in 2014, but there was a time when he wasn’t always the best athlete on the field.

“When I was growing up, I wasn’t always the quickest guy or fastest guy,” Agholor said. “In high school, I started playing running back. I started to see myself become a little more explosive. I developed a better stride, and I was able to move a little bit better. And that just matched up with the preparation I always had.”

Agholor, who checked in at 6-feet and 198 pounds at the NFL Scouting Combine, turned into an awesome running back at Berkeley Prep School in Tampa, Fla., rushing 212 times for 1,983 yards and 28 touchdowns as a high school senior in 2011.

Agholor — who was ranked as a five-star prospect by Rivals — only caught 10 passes for 117 yards that year, but was immediately converted to wide receiver when he arrived at USC.

The Trojans already had a pair of studs at receiver in Robert Woods and Marqise Lee, and were thin at running back. But coach Lane Kiffin saw so much promise in Agholor that he moved him to that position, anyway, and Agholor was absolutely receptive to it.

“I wanted to learn how to play the position, so I went there because they had two receivers that played it before me,” Agholor said.

Looking back, Agholor, who could go as high as the first round in this year’s draft, is convinced his background as a running back helped him at receiver.

“It was very valuable because it puts you in position where you have many tools,” Agholor said. “As a receiver, if you’ve been playing the position, you think reception, you’re just worried about possessions. As a running back, you’re thinking big play every time.

“To have that mentality as a receiver to think big play every time, when you catch the ball, you’re going vertical, and you’re going for six. You’re not worried about first downs. When contact comes, you’re not falling down, you’re trying to run through contact and keep going.”

Agholor’s stats back it up. In 2014, his first as the Trojans’ No. 1 option, the true junior caught 104 passes for 1,313 yards and 12 touchdowns. He also showed off his running ability as a returner. In his career, he returned 39 punts for 540 yards — an average of nearly 14 yards per return — and four touchdowns.

“It’s all about trying to score,” said Agholor, who ran a 4.42 40-yard dash at the combine. “You don’t get the ball just to convert first downs or 4 or 5 yards. When you catch the ball, you’re going to score. That’s my mentality. I’m trying to score every time I touch it.”

Agholor’s versatility — he lined up both inside and outside for the Trojans — should appeal to NFL teams. He sees himself as a Randall Cobb-type playmaker, someone who can threaten teams from a multitude of positions on the field.

“Green Bay has a guy like Randall Cobb in the backfield, running the out routes and the swings,” Agholor said. “He’s always the hot read in many situations. That’s part of my game I want to have. … I think it’s very important to who you are, and it increases your value. You’re an every-down receiver.

“They talk about an every-down backs, there are some receivers you can’t keep in the game all downs. I want to be the guy you never sub out. I want to be the guy you can run behind. I’m the guy you throw on first down, the guy you go deep to. Doesn’t matter. Or the guy you put in the backfield to get exotic.”

Indeed, Agholor has certainly taken to his new position. And you can tell it’s genuine; while most guys can name one or two pros they’d like to emulate, Agholor can rattle off a whole heap of them, offering further proof that he watches plenty of film, and while he may have been a running back in high school, he might have been a receiver all along in his heart.

“I have a lot of respect for a lot of the pro receivers; I watch a lot of them from (Cincinnati’s) A.J. Green (to) some of the new guys, (Buffalo’s) Sammy Watkins, (New York’s) Odell Beckham,” Agholor said. “But some veterans like (Arizona’s) Larry Fitzgerald, Reggie Wayne, (Pittsburgh’s) Antonio Brown would be the ones I watch the most.”

To reach Terez A. Paylor, call 816-234-4489 or send email to Follow him on Twitter at @TerezPaylor.

Inside the 2015 NFL Draft: wide receivers

From Sunday, April 19, until the draft begins on April 30, The Star will take a daily look at each position.

▪ What the Chiefs look for: The best receivers in the West Coast offense have solid, reliable hands and have the ability to consistently beat press coverage and make contested catches. Vertical speed is a plus, but burst out of cuts is even more important. Players with return skills offer versatility and run-after-the-catch ability that would fit well in the Chiefs' West Coast scheme.

▪ Chiefs' needs: The Chiefs believe free-agent signee Jeremy Maclin finally have the type of versatile, speedy threat at No. 1 receiver they have sorely lacked over the last two years. Veteran Jason Avant is a crafty, savvy option in the slot, where second-year pro De'Anthony Thomas also hopes to be come more of a threat. Second-year pro Albert Wilson came on strong toward the end of last year and will compete for a starting job, but it would be a surprise if the Chiefs didn't invest a fairly enough pick in bolstering the position. Youngsters Junior Hemingway and Frankie Hammond are solid special teamers who still have much to prove at receiver. Armon Binns, Corbin Louks, Da'Rick Rogers and Fred Williams are developmental guys.

▪ Sleeper: Stefon Diggs of Maryland was one of the elite prep recruits in the class of 2014, but got banged up in college and didn't shine the way many thought he would. But that doesn't mean the talent went anywhere; Diggs is a terrific athlete with big-play ability, both as a receiver and returner. Provided he can stay healthy, some team will get a steal in the third round.