Like the rest of us, Tyler Vaughns was confined to his family home this summer. But that was exactly where the USC receiver felt he needed to be to prepare for his senior year.
He knew he had dropped the football too often last season, and it was an area he wanted to focus on in 2020. But rather than drills with an actual football, he had a different solution. One that had worked for him throughout his childhood in Pasadena.
He and his brothers went out to the backyard or sometimes to the park behind their home. And they proceeded to have jump-ball battles, throwing baseballs and Wiffle balls into the air and leaping to try to catch the lobs over each other.
“They call it fun,” Vaughns’ father, Geoffrey, said, “but I know they was working.”
These are the little drills that shaped Vaughns into the 6-foot-2, 190-pound receiver he has been for USC the past three years: 2,395 yards and 17 touchdowns across 189 career receptions, 63 away from Robert Woods’ USC record.
Before he was a football player, Vaughns was on the baseball diamond. Geoffrey played the game at Long Beach State and coached a youth baseball team that all his sons played on. When Vaughns was 10, he made his dad’s 12-and-under team.
Not because of nepotism, though: Vaughns led the team with 11 home runs that year.
At first, Vaughns played catcher, just as his dad did for the Dirtbags.
“I never used to drop to my knees and dig the ball out. I always wanted to see how fast my hands was reacting to the ball,” Vaughns said. “It affected my hand-eye coordination just with anything.”
He eventually outgrew catcher, literally, and was moved out to shortstop and outfield, while also pitching occasionally. His size made him an intimidating presence on the mound in middle school, and opposing coaches frequently asked Geoffrey anxiously if his son was taking the mound that day.
But another driving factor for Vaughns was competition. He was the third of six siblings, with two older brothers he was constantly trying to surpass, especially Aaren, two years his elder and formerly a receiver for Utah State.
“Tyler always played against older guys, and I think that’s what made him better. He got to high school, he’s playing against college guys,” Geoffrey said. “They wouldn’t make it easy for him. Before you know it, Tyler was just killing them. Always outjump them, always outleap them. Faster.”
Quarantine forced all the members of the Vaughns family back under the same roof again this summer, one of those hidden silver linings. Geoffrey set up a gym in the garage for Vaughns and Aaren to lift weights.
Vaughns took the opportunity to get back to some baseball drills. It’s something he hadn’t been able to do much of since enrolling in college out of Bishop Amat, despite being given the chance to play baseball for USC. When competing for a spot in the Trojans’ receiving rotation, you can’t afford to take spring football off. But that return to his roots was useful.
“I wasn’t in the same cycle I was used to, a couple of things came short and I knew what it was and I knew why it was,” Vaughns said. “Because I wasn’t being the all-around athlete like I was in the past.”
The time off could have given Vaughns time to second-guess some decisions. He had opted to stay in school for his senior year rather than turn pro. Given the uncertainty of when the Pac-12 season was going to happen, it might have felt like the wrong choice. And he could have considered opting out to focus on his future NFL career.
But that wasn’t how he saw it.
“At the end of the day, it is what it is, I made the decision and my actions and triumphs will determine how my life is gonna go,” Vaughns explained. “I’m supposed to be here. I’ve wanted to win a championship since I’ve been here, so if the opportunity presented itself this season, I would be ready for it.”
He is currently ninth on USC’s all-time receptions list, and needs just 27 more catches to jump to third all-time. With a seven-game season, plus a bowl game, Vaughns would need to grab about eight receptions per game to break Woods’ record, not as attainable as it might have been in a full-length campaign but not completely out of reach.
But for a kid who grew up attending Pete Carroll’s open practices at USC watching the “gladiators”, as Geoffrey described those teams, seeing his name among Trojan greats is still a special feeling no matter where he ultimately lands.
“It just shows how much hard work I put in and just hours on end and how my coaches believe in me and trying to help me achieve my goals,” Vaughns said. “I’m going to be breaking a record, but still leaving USC so it’s gonna be a bittersweet moment for me.”