by Garry Paskwietz
So now the USC Trojans must get ready to play their two biggest games of the year, and they must do it without the services of both middle inside linebackers as Cameron Smith and Lamar Dawson are out for the season with injuries.
There’s no doubt this is an obstacle but the mantra you hear from interim USC coach Clay Helton and the Trojans players is the need for “next man up” to step in and fill the role. This is a common cry from teams around the country at this time of the season and, if you think about it, the Trojans are as experienced as anybody in terms of needing someone to step in this year.
First off, there is Helton, who had to step in for Steve Sarkisian last month as the Trojans head coach after Sarkisian was terminated by USC athletics director Pat Haden. It was the second time Helton has filled the interim role, he also had a chance to watch Ed Orgeron do it two years ago, so he knew his way around the difficult job.
Helton had to go on the road right away to Notre Dame and then turn around to face an undefeated and top-five ranked Utah team at home. Along the way he had to keep a handle on managing the team, one that had lost three of four games prior to his getting the job, and instilling his thumbprint during a job audition for the USC full-time job or any other potential openings. There has been a renewed commitment to the run, a resurgence along the defensive line, and four victories in a row. There has also been a pattern of slow offensive starts, something that needs to change this week against the Ducks.
On the field, this won’t be the first time the Trojans have been forced to look deep into the depth chart, namely after earlier issues at tight end and center.
Prior to the season starting the Trojans learned they would be without expected tight end starter Bryce Dixon and top reserve Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick. It was a scramble situation as there was precious little experience behind them and USC was facing the prospect of having to go with a walk-on (Connor Spears) or a former offensive lineman (Cyrus Hobbi). As it turned out, Oklahoma transfer Taylor McNamara has been able to secure the starting spot and true freshman Tyler Petite has shown flashes of pass catching ability. There are only 18 catches and three touchdowns between them but that’s been an acceptable production level under the circumstances.
At center, USC entered the season with one of the top players in the position across the country in Max Tuerk, with the option of using Toa Lobendahn behind him, considered the heir apparent next year. Unfortunately, both players were lost for the season with knee injuries and the Trojans were forced to turn to Khaliel Rodgers, a lightly used former guard who brings a lot of effort. A quick glance at the rushing totals since Rodgers has entered the line-up shows that something is working, and the continued ability to run the ball will obviously be critical in the coming weeks.
Of course, the only reason Smith entered the starting line-up at linebacker for the season opener to begin with was the fact that Dawson was out of action with a rib injury suffered during training camp. Not only did Smith become the first true freshman to start at inside linebacker since Riki Gray (Ellison) in 1978, but Smith was also looking to become the first freshman ever to lead the Trojans in tackles. Smith currently has 78 tackles, and Su’a Cravens is next on the list with 66.
It remains to be seen if any of the potential fill-ins at linebacker will be able to achieve similarly good results but the Trojans don’t really have a choice, one of them will simply need to step in and take their chances on the outcome.