The USC Trojans likely won’t have everybody back who sat out the Colorado game due to injury, but there does appear to be some good news coming on the injury front this week.
The Trojans welcomed defensive end Christian Rector and cornerback Chris Steele back to practice early this week. Rector sat out the last few games with a high ankle sprain and Steele missed the Colorado game after injuring his knee during practices that week. USC also looks ready to get linebacker Palaie Gaoteote back into the fold. Gaoteote suffered an ankle sprain against Notre Dame and sat out both the Arizona and Colorado games.
Gaoteote warmed up with the team on Wednesday without pads, but then put them on during scout team work and participated in at least a portion of practice. Head coach Clay Helton is unavailable to the media on Wednesdays, so while there wasn’t an official injury report, the sophomore linebacker all-but-officially cleared himself to play.
“I feel good. I’m just glad to be back out here practicing,” Gaoteote said. “Whatever I can do to help the team, I’m here for.”
In Gaoteote’s place, the Trojans turned to Kana’i Mauga against the Wildcats and Buffaloes, and he responded well.
“I think he did excellent. Everything that he did, he really stepped up,” Gaoteote said of Mauga, complimenting his preparation from Monday through Thursday. “By the time the game came, he just balled out and did what he did. You guys saw, he did real good. I’m proud of him.”
Gaoteote said his initial plan was to try to return to the field against Arizona. When that didn’t happen, he kept pushing. It just so happens that his return could coincide with the biggest Pac-12 game of the year for the Trojans.
“Were just excited to compete,” Gaoteote said of the stakes this weekend. “Oregon, they do a lot of great things. We’re just excited to compete against them…They have really good O-linemen, a lot of great backs, good quarterback. But I mean, with all that, it’s just all football and we just have to compete.”
The Trojan defense will have its hands full with an Oregon offense that has scored points in bunches and from a lot of different players this season. Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast praised a Duck offense that has scored at least 35 points in three-straight games, and singled out an offensive line that he says is impressive in its ability to play together — a byproduct of the number of starts Oregon has collectively along that line.
“They’re very multiple offensively,” he said. “They give you a lot of personnel groups. They have a lot of different run blocking schemes…And then in the passing game, they use all parts of the field. They have a good screen game and a very good downfield passing game.”
Guiding the Oregon offense is quarterback Justin Herbert, a potential top-5 selection in next spring’s NFL draft.
“Obviously the quarterback speaks for himself,” Pendergast said. “His talent level and what he’s been able to do and his number, not only this year but his whole career.”
Herbert has thrown for 9,174 yards and 84 touchdowns against just 18 interceptions in his career. He’s sporting a 21-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio this season and has thrown just that one interception in his last 307 attempts. He’s also a physical presence in the pocket, standing all of 6-foot-6 and 237 pounds. While he isn’t as mobile as some former Oregon quarterbacks, he can still pick up yards if allowed lanes to tuck and scramble.
With Steele and Rector firmly back in the mix, and Gaoteote seeming to move closer to that designation, the defense is inching back toward full health. But two significant pieces remain out, as defensive end Drake Jackson and safety Talanoa Hufanga did not practice on Wednesday. Both — along with running backs Vavae Malepeai and Stephen Carr — remained on the field during practice, participating in rehab/conditioning work, rather than heading to the weight room with the other players who are out for extended periods. Jackson again did not wear a boot on his injured ankle on Wednesday.
Helton will likely provide updates on all the injured players following Thursday’s practice, but it appears that there could be a few game-time-decisions for the Trojans.
Linebacker Juliano Falaniko sat out Wednesday’s practice, along with fellow linebacker Tuasivi Nomura. Running back Markese Stepp was in attendance. His foot is still in a boot and he was riding a cart.