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Helton media call notes: Lichtenstein opts in, injury updates, and another special play from Drake Jackson

USC head coach Clay Helton met with the media on Thursday morning and delivered some injury update news as the Trojans are set to take on Utah. Helton also discussed USC getting some defensive line help from a familiar face and last week’s impacts of some young wide receivers.

Game on?

Utah has yet to play a game this season and the team and Salt Lake City have dealt with Covid issues. Helton said that as of Wednesday night, it looked as though things were trending in the right direction for the Utes to be able to play this game on Saturday. Utah athletic director Mark Harlan said Tuesday night that he felt the Utes would have about 70-80% of its roster available for the game. Previously, Utah had not been able to reach the Pac-12 mandated threshold of 53 scholarship player available to play a game. Utah had been working a large number of walk-ons and scout team players into the two-deep, but those numbers have dwindled a bit recently as starters and backups have returned to action.

Injury updates heading into the Utah game

It looks as though USC will be without starting linebacker Palaie Gaoteote against Utah. Gaoteote left the Arizona game and was put in concussion protocol, and he’s still going through that at this point. Helton said Gaoteote is “very doubtful” for the game.

Helton said the team could have center Brett Neilon back in the starting lineup on Saturday night. Neilon sprained his ankle against Arizona State and was not medically cleared to play last week against Arizona. Helton said he thinks Neilon will be an option for the Trojans.

Defensive tackle Brandon Pili could see his first action of the season on Saturday. The senior lineman broke his finger before the season opener and did not play against Arizona State or Arizona. He would be a big addition for the depth up front against a run-first team like Utah. Helton said Pili has practiced the last two days and will have a manufactured splint on his hand rather than a full cast. Helton called him a possibility for the game.

USC could get defensive end Caleb Tremblay back as well. Tremblay suffered stingers at the end of last week and was held out of the Arizona game. Helton said Tremblay participated in contact drills on Wednesday and didn’t suffer any setbacks. Helton called Tremblay a game-time decision, but added that he is progressing the right way toward Saturday.

The Trojans will be without walk-on tailback Ben Easington, who had contributed on special teams this season. Easington is dealing with a foot infection, according to Helton, and will not make the trip.

Big Lich opts back

USC suffered a few defections along the defensive line before the season began, as first Jay Tufele opted out of the 2020 season to prepare for the 2021 NFL Draft, and then defensive end Jacob Lichtenstein made the decision to opt out as well.

But Lichtenstein has begun the process of rejoining the team for the remainder of the season. Helton said the defensive end will be back in town this week and then he’ll need to proceed through all the healthy and safety protocols necessary for rejoining the team. Lichtenstein was one of the players specifically mentioned by cornerback Chris Steele as returning from quarantine in great shape, so the hope is that there wouldn’t be much time needed for Lichtenstein to get into game shape, though it’s unknown at this point how quickly he’d be able to contribute in any meaningful way. But getting another body up front is definitely not a bad thing, as USC has found some success with Marlon Tuipulotu flanked by Nick Figueroa and Tuli Tuipulotu. But even in a shortened season, rotating in some depth up front will be important as USC moves into the final few games.

Helton said Lichtenstein reached out to the team this week and began the process of coming back. Helton said Lichtenstein has had positive conversations with position coach Vic So’oto and Helton spoke with Lichtenstein two days ago, when the defensive end and Florida native said he was buying a flight to come back to Los Angeles.

Shuffling at linebacker

If the Trojans are indeed without Gaoteote this weekend, it looks as though USC will run Ralen Goforth and Kana’i Mauga as the starters at inside linebacker, with Raymond Scott and Tuasivi Nomura as the backups. Helton said it’s likely that all four will play against Utah.

Helton said it was Scott’s decision to begin this fall camp at safety, but a lack of numbers at linebacker led to the decision to move him up a level to linebacker.

“We went to him and said this is where we see you can have a bigger role, especially with Talanoa and Isaiah, how well they’ve been playing,” Helton said of approaching Scott to move him to linebacker. “We felt like he could have a bigger role in that area, and he was for it.”

Scott responded with a couple nice plays against Arizona, including a sack, and Helton said he’s been impressed with how quickly Scott has picked up the position. While he came to USC as a linebacker, Scott moved to safety in the spring of 2019 and had been there until recently. Helton said defensive coordinator Todd Orlando was struck by his athleticism, and added that Scott brings safety athleticism in a linebacker body.

“Making that transition took about a week for him to really get dialed in and to be able to have that week to get practice and then all of a sudden it’s Arizona and now you’re thrust in, that helped us to have two weeks of prep,” Helton said. “Man, he made some nice plays for us in that game and [he] will be a value not only at the linebacker position but you see him on special teams. He’s been a major contributor for us.”

This will likely be the first extended look at Mauga this season. He was held to just a handful of snaps against Arizona State as he was working his way back from a hamstring injury. He played more against Arizona and should now be ready to go fully against Utah.

“Last week looked really healthy, looked like himself again,” Helton said. “He’s started in ballgames for us before and done a nice job. He’ll be asked not only to play linebacker but to be on teams in this game, so all eyes will be on him. And that’s what he wants. He wants to have the spotlight on him, so I know he’s excited about it.”

Young receivers making first catches

Both John Jackson III and Gary Bryant Jr. made the first receptions of their USC careers last weekend and Helton made sure the entire team took note of how those two young players took advantage of the opportunities.

“Those young players have gained the confidence of Graham [Harrell] and KC (Keary Colbert),” Helton said, adding that the high play count of the first two games leads to the coaches wanting to be able to give players a breather every now and then. “I actually showed on Monday, the title of the slide was “You never know when your opportunity is going to come.” It was a shot of John making an explosive play for us. It was a shot of Gary. He gets his first catch but he was asked to do some things blocking-wise that I thought he did an amazing job, physically, to go out there and do a job and hold up and be a tough guy. And showed us some things. You never know until the lights come on how a kid is going to react. There was no fear in his eyes. He actually took on a linebacker one time down at the goal line and did an amazing job.”

Helton said the young receivers — Josh Jackson Jr. in addition to those two — has allowed USC to use 10 personnel (four wide receivers) a little more at times this season, and he expects that all three could see some action

Safety school

No Drake Jackson play stands out more from his freshman season than the safety he forced against Utah. He finished that game with eight tackles and firmly planted the idea that he was an absolute star for the USC defense. But Helton said Thursday, that game didn’t really change the way he saw Jackson. His vision of the freshman was set from the very first practice.

“There’s some kids that step on this campus that you just know they’ve got it,” Helton said. “I remember when Adoree’ (Jackson) stepped on campus you were like whoa, that’s different. Leonard Williams. Whoa, that’s different. And it’s from practice one. Marqise Lee was one of those guys. Drake was one of those guys. It didn’t take a game. It was the first practice and you were like whoa, that’s different. That’s special. That’s unique to him.”

It’s two games into the 2020 season, and Jackson has at least one signature play in each game on par with that safety from last season. Against Arizona State, it was the final pass rush of the game, where he forced an incompletion on fourth-down, effectively ending the game.

Helton pointed to a third-down sack against Arizona as a Jackson play that jumped out on film. He said on the play, Raymond Scott was spying the quarterback, which means Jackson had no responsibilities as far as maintaining a rush lane and he could do anything he wanted to get to the quarterback on the play. One of those options is a spin move to the inside.

“It’s his opportunity to be able to go inside, if needed, because he doesn’t have to keep contain,” Helton said. “TO (Todd Orlando) told me that in nine years of this system, he’s never had a kid do that. And then all of a sudden, Drake Jackson, you look up and he gets that call, he remember what coach taught him in practice and this is my opportunity. So not only cognitively say this is my chance, but do it at the highest level possible and get the sack on that play was one of those awe inspiring moments that just reinforces how special this kid is.”

Erik McKinney

Erik McKinney began writing for WeAreSC in 2004, during his junior year at USC, covering the Trojans football team and recruiting. He then moved on to ESPN.com in 2011, where he served as the West Region recruiting reporter and then the Pac-12 recruiting reporter. He took over as publisher of WeAreSC in January, 2019.

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