NCAA rule change allows Trojan football to test depth this season

Head coach Clay Helton said freshman defensive lineman Tuli Tuipulotu has proven his starting lineup potential for the season. (John McGillen via USC Athletics)

As the USC Trojans inch closer to a football season like no other, it’s make or break time for head coach Clay Helton’s team as news of coronavirus outbreaks across rosters and coaching staff has canceled at least 29 games across the country thus far. 

Before practice on Wednesday, Helton taped an ESPN article to the locker room wall announcing Wisconsin’s cancellation of its upcoming Saturday game against Nebraska because of a team tally of 12 new positive coronavirus cases.

Helton implored the team to follow testing protocol, wear masks and think of the opportunity that a six-game season can bring for their game development and athleticism. 

“It’s kind of like time has stood still, and you don’t get that too rarely in life,” Helton said in a press conference Thursday. “And what I mean by that is this year is an unbelievable opportunity to go compete for a championship, play with your teammates, play with your brothers — and not one person’s eligibility [is lost]. They’re just getting great development and great education.”

In August, the NCAA Board of Governors approved a fall-sport-wide retention of eligibility due to the pandemic, regardless of whether conferences decide to hold a season. The retention exclusively applies to this year and gives teams the ability to test their depth, which is especially advantageous for a Trojan team with a small drop-off in skill from veterans to freshmen players. 

On the offensive line, coordinators Graham Harrell and Tim Drevno have several players making rounds in one to two positions each, with freshmen offensive linemen Courtland Ford and redshirt Jason Rodriguez at right guard, freshmen Jonah Monheim and Caadyn Stephen at right tackle and freshman Andres Dewerk and redshirt sophomore Liam Douglass at left guard — all praised for having productive camps and the right mindsets to step up when needed.

Helton reiterated that narrowing down the Trojans’ defensive front will probably be the most difficult decision that he and defensive coordinator Todd Orlando make in the days leading up to the conference kick-off against Arizona State. Fans should expect several players to get some playing time, as Helton said that newcomers like freshman defensive lineman Tuli Tuipulotu are “hard to keep off the field.”

Adding to the depth is a new health update, with several players returning to practice in different stages of individual, group and full-pad drills. 

Showing up and showing out the past few days are freshman wide receiver Joshua Jackson Jr., who is back from an ankle injury, and junior inside linebacker Kana’i Mauga and sophomore outside linebacker Drake Jackson. 

Past-season tailback standouts redshirt sophomore Markese Stepp, treading carefully after a new and minor mid-foot sprain, and redshirt -senior Vavae Malepeai are getting back into some contact plays and individual drills, respectively. Additionally, after changing up personal game plans and independent work, the team hopes to see freshman wide receiver Gary Bryant Jr. back in time for the Nov. 7 game. 

With depth, the absence of a spring camp and half the typical regular season schedule, Helton is looking to recover from past mistakes by staying physical each week, while balancing the health and safety of his players. 

“It’s a great advantage because — and we actually talked about it as a staff yesterday just out of coincidence about the ability in this early season, don’t be afraid to use guys, and be able to use our depth — whether that’s offense, defense or special teams,” Helton said. “Because in this scenario it’s a little bit different, I mean you can look up and three guys test positive or false-positive and the next guy’s out there.”

This week, the first mock game-week, figures to be the start of that pattern, full of practices that would normally compose a week in between matchups. On Saturday, the team will have a final run-though in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum with “Fight On” blasting and simulated fan sounds bringing players as close to the real thing as possible. 

After the mock game, Sunday won’t provide the Trojans any time to rest, as practices are shifted up so that Tuesday, Election Day, can be an off-day for players to vote.