The battle to replace departed defensive tackle Marlon Tuipulotu in the middle of the USC defensive line took another turn on Monday, as USC head coach Clay Helton announced that Alabama transfer Ishmael Sopsher will miss at least the start of spring ball after undergoing compartment syndrome surgery.
Helton said it’s a very similar situation to what former USC wide receiver Michael Pittman went through with the Colts this past fall. Pittman missed roughly a month due to the injury, playing in Week 3 and then again in Week 8. USC backup quarterback Mo Hasan had surgery for compartment syndrome last season. At the time, Helton estimated a three to four week recovery time for Hasan.
“I don’t know how much we’ll get him in spring, to be honest with you,” Helton said of Sopsher. “He’s just coming off that surgery and hopefully will be back going sometime later this spring, obviously hopefully fully healthy and ready to go over the summer.”
Sopsher has the potential to be a huge part of the USC defensive line. The Trojans did not have Jay Tufele available last fall after he elected to opt out of the 2020 season. In his place, USC got a very productive year from Tuipulotu. Now that he is also off to the NFL, the Trojans don’t seen to have a ready-made stand in at that spot.
A bulk of the responsibility could fall to Brandon Pili, who has shown flashes of terrific play during his USC career, and could be the answer there if it all comes together consistently. After Pili, there is a lot of young, untested talent.
Stanley Ta’ufo’ou and De’jon Benton have flashed at times in practice, while Kobe Pepe saw the field a bit as a true freshman last season. Jamar Sekona came in with Pepe and defensive end Tuli Tuipulotu in the 2020 class and could provide some depth there this season. It will also be interesting to see where Maninoa Tufono is in his development, as he came in as a linebacker but shifted to the defensive line last season. And all of those young players could be pushed immediately by early enrollee Jay Toia, who might have enough size and strength to get himself into the mix right away.
USC has some pieces returning on the outside, as Drake Jackson, Hunter Echols and true freshman Korey Foreman will be asked to provide pass rushing off the edge as outside linebackers, and both Tuli Tuipulotu and Nick Figueroa put together great 2020 seasons at defensive end.
Sopsher does not bring a lot of on-field experience to USC, as he played in just one game during his 2019 redshirt year and did not see game action in 2020 before electing to transfer. But he’s spent time in an Alabama program that traditionally churns out defensive linemen and he showed some progression in his development, dropping from 334 pounds as a freshman down to 310 last year.
“I have not gotten to see Ish as much,” Helton said when describing what the four new transfer players have brought to the program. “But I love the attitude that he brought in early and he is a mountain of a man. So I can’t wait to get that additional big body in that interior front.”