It’s a well-known fact by now that the scholarship restrictions placed on USC in wake of the Reggie Bush scandal have severely handicapped the Trojans this season.
According to the participation chart released to the media by USC’s athletics department, the Trojans used 41 scholarship players and 10 walk-ons during Saturday’s game against Utah.
Now, it goes without saying that a fan would never root for players on his or her favorite team — and hopefully, any other team — to get injured.
But as the number of inactive Trojans has piled up to ridiculous proportions over the past few weeks, I’ve started to think that this seemingly nightmarish scenario might not be such a bad situation for USC after all.
The depth of this squad has been tested since before the season even started. Junior George Farmer and freshman Steven Mitchell both suffered torn knee ligaments before fall camp, initially depleting the wide receiver corps and setting the stage for one of the most discouraging string of injuries I can recall in my time as a sports fan.
Junior wideout Marqise Lee, who came into the season as a legitimate Heisman contender, suffered a severe knee sprain against Arizona State. Senior linebacker Morgan Breslin has missed three games after leading USC with 13 sacks last year. Senior tailback Silas Redd took longer than expected to return from knee surgery and didn’t play in USC’s first five games. Last week, the athletic department announced junior linebacker Lamar Dawson and freshman tailback Justin Davis would miss the rest of the season.
But in these players’ absences, USC has discovered young, capable backups who have been able to prevent disastrous results while gaining valuable experience for the future.
While Lee has been nursing his knee, sophomore Nelson Agholor and freshman Darreus Rogers have filled in admirably. Agholor has performed so impressively that it’s not crazy to think he could push Lee as the team’s leading receiver when the reigning Biletnikoff Award recipient returns to the field.
Redshirt sophomore running back Tre Madden has turned out to be an absolute workhorse and has made his convincing case as the full-time starter — while Redd netted zero yards on 10 carries against Utah, Madden gained 60 yards on 12 carries.
Junior linebacker J.R. Tavai led USC with 11 tackles and two sacks against the Utes in his second start of the season in place of Breslin. In the first, he racked up 3.5 tackles for loss.
Redshirt sophomore linebacker Anthony Sarao, who often spelled Dawson with the first-team defense during fall camp, was USC’s second leading tackler with nine tackles on Saturday in his first career start.
The list goes on and on.
But perhaps what’s most important is that with so many backups getting the chance to take the field, the team’s morale seems to be at an all-time high despite the disturbing number of seemingly debilitating injuries.
When redshirt sophomore tailback Javorious “Buck” Allen scored the first touchdown of his career against Arizona by diving over the pile into the end zone, he was immediately mobbed by his teammates. After the game, multiple players described it as a high point of the season — Allen had just 20 career carries before his breakout game against the Wildcats.
“Everybody said we don’t have depth,” redshirt junior safety Dion Bailey said after the victory. “That’s just a complete lie.”
USC was forced to use former offensive tackles (redshirt junior Nathan Guertler) and defensive ends (senior Kevin Greene) as tight ends against the Utes — and it was entertaining to watch and speculate about who would take the field next.
From here on out, USC fans really won’t know who will line up where on offense. But as long as the Trojans can continue to eke out victories as they did against Utah, I don’t think they’ll care.
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