Tuesday post-practice media sessions are reserved for offensive players and coaches, but the defensive side of the ball received plenty of attention today, specifically when it came to injury news. And the defensive back unit could be devastated against an Arizona offense averaging 300 yards per game through the air.
The Trojans will be without nickelback Greg Johnson on Saturday, as the defensive back suffered a shoulder sublexation against Notre Dame. USC could also be without cornerback Isaac Taylor-Stuart and linebacker Palaie Gaoteote. Taylor-Stuart suffered a high ankle sprain against the Fighting Irish. Head coach Clay Helton said the cornerback would try to do some light running on Wednesday and they would see where he is with his health at that point. As for Gaoteote, who also has an ankle sprain, Helton said the linebacker is farther behind Taylor-Stuart in terms of recovery and that he is doubtful for Arizona.
Cornerback Olaijah Griffin’s status is also in doubt. Griffin has a bulging disk that Helton said flared up and made him leave the game against Notre Dame. Griffin did not participate in practice on Tuesday and is another player whose status will likely be updated by Helton following Thursday’s practice.
If the Trojans are forced to play without Johnson, Taylor-Stuart and Griffin in the secondary, it will be interesting to see which direction they’ll go at that outside cornerback spot. With Chase Williams back at safety, true freshman Max Williams, who played against Washington at nickelback, but was held out of the Notre Dame game due to a team rule violation, could potentially start again at nickel. Fellow true freshman Kaulana Makaula came on against Notre Dame, and could be the backup there against Arizona. True freshman Jayden Williams, who has played on special teams could be the potential starter alongside another true freshman in Chris Steele, at cornerback, if both Griffin and Taylor-Stuart miss the game.
As for Gaoteote’s absence at linebacker, Helton said there will likely be a three-man rotation, with John Houston, Kana’i Mauga and Ralen Goforth. The Trojans could also use Juliano Falaniko or Eli’jah Winston, who has returned to practice after missing substantial time due to turf toe, in the middle. Senior linebacker Jordan Iosefa is dressing for practice but not taking part fully yet. Helton said he does not expect him to be ready for this weekend’s game.
As for the offensive production against Notre Dame, Helton said the biggest change from the first half to the second half was two things. First, he said the tempo increased in the second half, as plays were sent in faster.
Quarterback Kedon Slovis said that tempo doesn’t necessarily help the offense play better, but he did say that it makes it much tougher on the defense, citing a few times where they were able to get plays off before the Notre Dame defense was fully set.
Helton also said the distance to cover on third downs was hugely different between the two halves.
In the first half, the Trojans faced third downs of 15, 6, 1, 13, 1, 11, 7 and 4 yards. USC only managed to convert the two one-yard situations.
In the second half, USC’s third down situations were of 1, 5, 1 and 7 yards, as the Trojans converted three of the four. USC did not face third down situations on two of its three touchdown drives, and had gains of 11, 17 and 25 yards on its three conversions.
Helton said one positive thing that has stood out thus far is the short-yardage offense. The Trojans were 4-for-4 on third-and-one situations, which was certainly not the case last season.
The USC run defense will again be a focus this week, as Arizona brings quarterback Khalil Tate and a stable of good running backs to the Coliseum. This after Notre Dame ran for more than 300 yards against the Trojans.
“Obviously the numbers weren’t great last week. We understand that,” Helton said. “A lot of it has to do with explosive runs and getting the quarterback down.”
Helton said the coaches have worked with the players extensively in tackling circuits over the last two days and said the defense had a very good 9-on-7 period on Tuesday.
“I can see the defense has a chip on their shoulder, ready to prove something,” Helton said. “They’re going against I think one of the top-10 offenses in the country.”
Helton said this Arizona offense is “extremely dangerous” in between the tackles and out on the perimeter.
“Their RPO game I think is elite,” Helton said. “When you have all three options, it’s hard to defend…One, you’re going to be in a one-on-one situation to tackle, and two, you cannot miss an assignment.”