Given that my column runs a bit later in the week, the more obvious issues plaguing this year’s uneven USC football season are usually scooped up on Monday or Tuesday. Therefore, I often have to get a little creative. So today, I won’t be talking about Sam Darnold’s turnover prone play, or the shaky offensive line. I won’t be talking about the defense’s inconsistencies or offensive coordinator Tee Martin’s often baffling play-calling decisions (but for the record, he has drawn up solid game plans for the past two games against Arizona and Arizona State).
Instead, I’ll be discussing one of the more underlying dilemmas facing the 2017 Trojans: head coach Clay Helton’s mind-boggling handling of injuries.
I support Helton, I really do. Whereas some see his lack of flashiness as a downside, I view his ability to avoid controversy as refreshing, especially considering how scandal has been (and still is — see: Tony Bland) the bane of the USC athletic program’s existence. I also genuinely think he’s a good person, behind whom his players seem to genuinely rally.
I’ve often heard people explain away Helton’s early success as head coach as a simple byproduct of Darnold’s rapid ascension and nothing else. Sure, last year’s Rose Bowl victory is mostly thanks to No. 14, but I contend that without Helton’s steady leadership and calm presence (despite him very much being on the hot seat), the 2016 Trojans would have been unable to bounce back from that dreadful 1-3 start. Not to mention the fact that Helton recruited Darnold himself, seeing something special that many other power conference schools overlooked. He also knew exactly when to hand Darnold over the keys as the starting quarterback, starting the then-redshirt freshman at a pivotal point in the season against Utah.
With Helton’s universal designation as a “player’s coach,” it’s even more surprising that he has done a poor job of managing his team’s health this season. At countless press conferences dating back to spring practice, Helton has said something to the effect of, “We’ll always protect a kid. I’d rather lose a ball game than hurt a kid.” (That exact quote was in late August leading up to the Western Michigan game). But that hasn’t always been necessarily true.
In Week 2 against Stanford, junior outside linebacker Porter Gustin suffered a broken big toe. He underwent surgery during the next week, having two screws implanted. Leading into the next game against Texas, Helton was unsure if Gustin would be able to play, given his surgery mere days beforehand. But Gustin did play in the first half, notching an incredible three sacks, despite being hampered. Yet Gustin’s success was short-lived, and he left the game before halftime. His injured big toe was not only re-broken (reports indicated that one of the screws inside of his toe shifted), but he also suffered a torn bicep, likely from having overextended himself.
With his toe now in worse shape than before, to go along with the bicep tear, Gustin did not play for the next five games. He returned against Arizona State, playing for a quarter, but he appeared to re-aggravate the toe injury yet again. As of now, Gustin is still out indefinitely with no timetable for a return.
Injuries are a given in any football season, and USC has dealt with more than its fair share of ailments this year. Yet, losing one of the team’s top five players in Gustin for practically the entire season because of a broken toe is inexcusable.
At a practice leading up to this weekend’s game against Arizona, Helton was asked if he regretted playing Gustin against either Texas or Arizona. He responded, “No, based on any injury or any player, you don’t do anything until the doctors clear.” While I acknowledge that Gustin’s misevaluations may rest on the team’s doctors or the physical therapy staff, Helton is still directly responsible for both departments. He should have made the call to keep Gustin out of the Texas game.
Gustin is not the only example of a player being strangely misevaluated by doctors. Freshman nose tackle Marlon Tuipulotu has been at USC for an entire semester, arriving early for spring ball. Yet, it was not until five games into the season that the medical staff decided he needed to undergo surgery on a preexisting back injury. Tuipulotu, who was supposed to contribute immediately as one of the prized recruits of the 2016 class, is now out for the season having used a medical redshirt.
While Gustin and Tuipulotu were each rushed on the field with lingering health issues, Helton has treated other players’ injuries, like freshman running back Stephen Carr’s (foot) and sophomore wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr.’s (ankle), with supreme caution.
I want to see him succeed as USC’s head coach, but in the future Helton needs to reevaluate how he handles injuries to avoid losing key contributors when he does not have to.
Trevor Denton is a sophomore majoring in journalism. He is also the deputy sports editor for the Daily Trojan. His column, “T-Time,” runs Wednesdays.