USC focused on both its pass rush and pass protection at Wednesday’s practice, running drills designed around blitzes and pass-heavy concepts. Head coach Clay Helton singled out sophomore defensive lineman Brandon Pili, who was particularly impressive in this area and noted that the coaches pushed him throughout the week.
“He has some unique pass rush as a big man, and I thought he did a really nice job,” Helton said.
Even with senior star pass-rushing linebacker Porter Gustin sitting out practice this week with an ankle injury, defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast said he was confident with his depth.
“When you have body types like [redshirt junior defensive lineman] Christian Rector and [redshirt freshman linebacker] Hunter Echols, it gives you some flexibility,” he said, also referring to redshirt freshman defensive lineman Jacob Lichtenstein as a possibility to fill in for Gustin.
Helton said the bye week has been beneficial for positional coaches to identify the specific areas their respective players need to improve upon.
“Take a fundamental or technique, and let’s improve it this week,” Helton said. “Let’s not try to do a hundred things, let’s focus on the one to two things that you know we have to get better for this upcoming game.”
Helton also stressed the importance of resting players with minor but recurring pains and injuries.
“We didn’t have this luxury last year, to be able to have a bye and get a couple of guys healed up that have a nagging injury week after week after week,” he said. “I think it’s really going to help us.”
The coaches’ final point of emphasis for the week was developing players who might have to play due to teammates’ injuries. With senior stars like linebacker Cam Smith and cornerback Iman Marshall sitting out for rest, young backups such as freshmen linebacker Palaie Gaoteote IV and cornerback Olaijah Griffin took more reps this week.
“Any time you have a bye week, you want to get some guys reps that don’t play a whole lot,” Pendergast said. “So getting those guys to develop more and getting them to communicate more, because their opportunities to play aren’t as much. We’re really forcing them to talk in group settings.”
This focus manifested itself as the younger players ran team meetings this week. Gustin chuckled when asked about the meetings, but said the young guys did a good job speaking up and showing their knowledge.
Pendergast said the younger players stepped up, naming defensive backs freshman Chase Williams and redshirt sophomore C.J. Pollard, along with Gaoteote and Griffin, as players that impressed him.
“You can see it on tape,” Helton said of the young players’ improvement. “When you’re preparing for games, it’s so much harder to get them in there and get that amount of reps, and this is a great week to be able to do that.”
The Trojans will take an extra strength and conditioning day Thursday before taking a long weekend off, resuming practice on Monday.
Gustin said he hopes to be 100 percent by Monday and participate fully in next week’s practices. Helton said that redshirt sophomore receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe is getting closer to returning from a sprained ankle that has hampered him since August.