Trojans start full fall practices, Helton gives injury update

Junior safety Talanoa Hufanga will play a key role for USC’s secondary in the rapidly-approaching 2020 season. (Daily Trojan file photo)

There is less than one month until the start of the 2020 USC football season, and the position battles are beginning to heat up. 

The Trojans officially began practice Friday to kick off a three-week training camp ahead of their first game Nov. 7. One of the biggest challenges this season is how the coaching staff will deal with training camp during the middle of the academic semester. 

“Usually you have a limited amount of time during a training camp because it’s over the summer,” head coach Clay Helton said. “But now we’re on a 20-hour-care work week, and we have to work around school.”

Helton and his staff are responsible for figuring out how to best utilize the 20 hours per week designated for practicing. Practices must be no more than four hours a day, and the Trojans have decided their daily practice slots will be from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. 

Helton provided a lengthy list of injury updates to the media in a virtual press conference Friday. Two major blows for the Trojans this season are the losses of redshirt senior linebacker Jordan Iosefa and redshirt sophomore linebacker Solomon Tuliaupupu, both out indefinitely with knee injuries. Redshirt sophomore linebacker Eli’jah Winston is also out with an ankle injury.

Iosefa, who missed the 2019 season with a dislocated kneecap, played an imperative role on the defensive end in 2018. Former four-star recruit Tuliaupupu, on the other hand, has yet to make his debut with the Trojans. Winston was key to USC’s outside linebacker depth last season.

This leaves the Trojans thin in the linebacker group. Helton said this gives other players the opportunity to step up, specifically mentioning sophomore Ralen Goforth and redshirt freshman Tuasivi Nomura. 

“There’s still some really, really quality players,” Helton said. “We’ve got men there [at linebacker].”

Redshirt freshmen wide receiver Kyle Ford and tight end Ethan Rae are also injured, Helton said. Ford is out with a torn ACL and Rae had knee surgery. Sophomore receiver Munir McClain is also suspended from team activities, according to Helton, who did not specify the reason for the suspension. 

Redshirt junior offensive lineman Alijah Vera-Tucker, who initially opted out of the season, has decided to play this year, he announced last week. He is a leading candidate to fill in at left tackle to protect the blindside of sophomore quarterback Kedon Slovis. 

The Trojans’ offensive line did lose Austin Jackson to the NFL after the 2019 season, a key pass blocker and veteran presence on offensive line coach Tim Drevno’s group. Jackson’s departure opens up more time for the six freshmen offensive linemen signed last season. However, the Trojans still have great experience up front. 

“When you look at Alijah Vera-Tucker, [redshirt juniors] Jalen McKenzie, Andrew Vorhees, Brett Neilon and [redshirt senior] Liam Jimmons, they’ve all had that,” Helton said. “They’ve all had that experience.”

Not lost on the Trojans is the importance of maintaining and following health and safety protocols at all times. Helton mentioned the coaching staff needs to keep the team ready on all levels as contributions may be needed from further down the depth chart than usual. 

“It’s really going to be important for us to grow this team from the bottom up, not only because of injuries, but because all of a sudden you can have a positive test and that next guy is up like that,” Helton said. “We’re gonna have to train them [six freshmen] like they’re getting ready to go start a game, because they could.”

The Trojans have a short timeline until their first game against Arizona State Nov. 7. It will be tricky for the coaching staff to figure out how to best prepare the team, especially with changes on the staff including the addition of new defensive coordinator Todd Orlando.

Junior safety Talanoa Hufanga highlighted the energy Orlando brings to practice and how enjoyable it has been to work with him. 

“We’ve definitely put a whole new system in and we’re trying to learn as much as we can,” Hufanga said. “You try to absorb everything and take it and run.”

Another challenge for USC is that the first game of the season kicks off at an early start time of 9 a.m. Helton mentioned he will look to use weekends for earlier practices as a way to help get players prepared. Helton also said going out on the Coliseum field early in the morning is imperative to get players familiar with that experience. 

“As we draw closer to the game, we are going to do some things in the early morning to allow us to get them acclimated,” Helton said. “As well as take some opportunities on weekends to be able to get some work — not only at the time we’re going to play in that opening game but also to be in the Coliseum at that particular time.”

With less than four weeks remaining until the season opener, it’ll be crucial for contributors on offense, defense and special teams to become familiar with the abnormal stadium environment quickly. Slovis said he has been working with the offensive line on snap counts to throw defensive players off in an effort to use an empty stadium to their advantage.

Friday was the first time the team scrimmaged since March and adjustments are going to be made rapidly. 

“We got to dial in on [tackling] as fast as possible and be able to make our skills as best as possible when it comes down to the game,” Hufanga said.