Like many a California family, Tyler Vaughns’ summer afternoons often involved a trip to the beach. But unlike many families, the Vaughns rarely approached the water. Instead, Tyler and his two older brothers, Geoffrey and Aaren, would run routes as dad barked out instructions.

One hundred slats. One hundred curls. One hundred posts. Seven days a week.

The routes varied, but the routine never did — and such routines were instilled in Tyler at age seven. 

“We had to run so much,” Geoffrey says. “I didn’t see what he was seeing then, but I see it now.”

(Photo: USA TODAY Sports)

All three Vaughns brothers went on to play college football. Geoffrey, five years Tyler’s senior, is now the family trainer. Aaren is a senior wide receiver at Utah State. Tyler, a redshirt sophomore, is USC’s leading returning receiver. The family’s fourth brother, Jonathan, is a star baseball player in the 2020 class who already holds multiple Division I offers.

Tyler, who reeled in 57 catches for 809 yards as a redshirt freshman, is a route-running technician. That ability, often literally (at least before the tide arrives), can be traced to those footsteps in the sand.

His patented open-field quickness? Well, that came from elsewhere. Vaughns, who finished 40th nationally among all FBS receivers by forcing 11 missed tackles per PFF College, refined the explosive plant-and-go moves in backyard one-touch games. This includes Vaughns’ signature ability to catch a pass, plant, circle backward and then explode past a defensive back.

It’s how Vaughns turned a simple out route last season against Arizona State into a 42-yard touchdown.

“In my house, there’s never a person who can tackle you,” Tyler told 247Sports. “We try to make it seem like the first person can’t make the tackle. They need help.”

Plenty of people needed assistance in tackling Vaughns a year ago. Often overshadowed on a USC offense that included Sam Darnold, Ronald Jones and Deontay Burnett, Vaughns is set to break out nationally in 2018. He’s PFF’s seventh-rated returning Power Five receiver, and all of those slotted ahead of him could claim top billing status a year ago on their teams.

Vaughns is aware his time is now for the Trojans. His goals reflect that.

“A year over 1,500 yards, 10-plus touchdowns and over 50 receptions,” Vaughns said. “To make a big impact on offense is my overall goal. My other main goal is to win the Biletnikoff (Award). That’s what I’m working toward. That’s what I think about every day anytime I’m running routes.”

It’s a confident answer.

It’s also what he believes to be an earned one.

“That confidence was installed in all of us,” Geoffrey said. “We put in the work. We know everybody puts in the work and works out. But it’s from those days sitting in the sand sweating and crying.”

Vaughns spent his Friday nights serving as the ball boy for both Geoffrey and Aaren’s teams. Tyler would have to hit against Geoffrey as a pop warner pup in the backyard, sometimes in full pads. As Geoffrey says, “I used to smash him. But, oh well. My dad used to say, ‘If you can handle this, you can handle anything.’”

In some ways, Tyler is a combination of his brother’s best attributes. Geoffrey is his trainer and Aaren, at 5-foot-8, is his route-running inspiration. Blessed with size and the speed that comes with that length, Tyler’s watched Aaren break free for years due to his ability to explode out of breaks. Quickness is his brother’s weapon, and Tyler embraces that.

“He always told me to break everything like him,” Tyler said. “Have a small-man mentality when it comes to routes. It’s moving my body in different directions and snapping down.”

Tyler emerged as the best prospect of the three. Hometown favorite USC offered as a sophomore in high school, and he eventually blossomed into the No. 2 overall receiver in the 2016 class per the 247Sports Composite.

Part of a loaded 2016 team that went to the Rose Bowl, Vaughns redshirted. He called the process a “long” one, but ultimately beneficial. Vaughns described his true freshman campaign as “going through the motions.” He learned the Trojan system and battled future first-round pick Adoree' Jackson each day in practice. Once the second week of spring ball came around in 2017, Vaughns felt the game slow.

“From there, I knew I could do whatever I want to,” Vaughns said.

Injuries took their toll on USC’s 2017 hopes. By the time a Week 5 road game with Washington State came about, the Trojans were limping. Six Trojan pass catchers were on the injury report entering the contest, and another previously unlisted receiver missed the game due to a pre-game concussion. Thus, Darnold turned to Vaughns again and again.

Vaughns finished the afternoon with six catches for 89 yards, setting off a streak in which he’d finish with 744 yards and five touchdowns over the team’s final 10 games.

With 14 starters returning – even more when you add in no longer injured reinforcements – the Trojans have the talent to repeat in the Pac-12. They just need a new generation of skill talent to emerge as a replacement for the NFL trio of Darnold, Jones and Burnett. Vaughns is at the forefront of that push along with junior wide receiver Michael Pittman and sophomore running back Stephen Carr. As for the quarterback, Vaughns is high on incoming five-star quarterback JT Daniels, who’s competing with Matt Fink and Jack Sears for the starting job.

“He has a very strong arm,” Vaughns said. “He’s very smart. I mean, he’s a very, very smart kid. We just have to see how he plays when we put the pads on.”

Vaughns used to run around Pasadena, site of many of the Trojans’ greatest games, with his brothers.

Those routes in the sand and tears in the backyard, they prepared him to contribute immediately at his childhood dream school. USC, 21-6 over the last two seasons, is hotter than it’s been at any point since the Pete Carroll era ended. This new generation of Trojans, buoyed by back-to-back top 5 recruiting classes, sees that. Remember those individual goals from earlier? Vaughns is quick to point out a larger, more important team goal — a national championship — and believes USC is growing ever closer to that target. 

“Last year was very eye-opening seeing how Trojan football can be played,” Vaughns said. "I haven’t really seen it since Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart were here. For me to contribute that was a big, big thing from me.

“I feel as if from the Rose Bowl to now, we’re just gone up and up. I feel as if we’re very, very close to getting back to what we had before.”