USC could be without multiple starters on its defensive front seven this week as it prepares to face Texas’ high-octane offense. Linebacker Porter Gustin and defensive tackle Marlon Tuipulotu are both doubtful to play on Saturday, and linebacker John Houston Jr. has been held from practice this week though his condition has improved.
Doctors surgically inserted two screws into Gustin’s big toe on Wednesday morning to repair what Coach Clay Helton described as “a small crack.” Helton said the injury is similar to one sustained by former USC receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster three seasons ago in his hand “that took a couple days to heal.” Smith-Schuster did not miss a game.
But in that case Smith-Schuster underwent surgery on a Monday. Gustin’s surgery came later in the week.
“It will be based on the doctors' opinion and the pain of Porter and what he goes through and what he can take, whether he can play or not,” Helton said. “It's day to day. Porter's a tough kid. I don't know if it's too late for him to play in this game or not. I think he'll definitely be ready for next week but he'll be very close for this week, just being a realist."
Gustin led USC in tackles for loss last season and sets the edge on the defense, an element USC will need against Texas, a team that stretches the field and targets defensive ends and outside linebackers with read-option runs. Texas has averaged 252 rushing yards in its first two games.
Gustin also injured his shoulder against Stanford, but an MRI exam on Sunday revealed no damage, Helton said.
Gustin did not miss time after sustaining either injury against Stanford and is already stumping for a return on Saturday.
“His mind-set is, 'coach, I want to play,' ” Helton said. “And like I told him, we're never gonna risk a kid's health to win a ballgame.”
Connor Murphy would start in place of Gustin, and Christian Rector, who has played at defensive end, would also see action at the predator linebacker position.
Tuipulotu, a freshman who made the first start of his career against Stanford, sprained a knee ligament during the game. He was initially classified as day to day, but Helton said the injury could sideline him one to three weeks.
“He has not really moved around, so I think he's doubtful,” Helton said.
Tuipulotu started against Stanford to provide extra bulk to stop the run, but USC is expected to use a heavy nickel defense against Texas. That could help mitigate his absence.
Houston, who suffered a stinger, is “getting better,” Helton said.
USC’s coaches afforded defensive end Rasheem Green a rare luxury during Wednesday’s practice. They sat him for part of practice so he could rest a sore toe, meaning, for one of the few times this season, he could watch his teammates play.
Green has developed into a stalwart on the defensive line, and defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast has found it difficult to take him off the field. Defensive linemen usually cycle into and out of games to keep from tiring. But Green didn’t miss a defensive snap against Stanford.
"We ended up subbing some interior players, but Rasheem was playing at a high level,” Helton said. “He wasn't tired."
Pendergast explained that Stanford’s offense didn’t run many plays — 54 total. He said that’s well within the acceptable range for Green.
"We're not just going to take guys to rotate guys,” Pendergast said. “As long as he's fresh and can go he's gonna go."
Some USC fans experienced long lines entering the Coliseum around kickoff last week for the Stanford game. USC is expecting more fans for the Texas game, which has sold out.
So USC is encouraging fans to get into the stadium early — an hour early — to avoid long waits.
Rick tackle Chuma Edoga (wrist sprain) did not practice. USC plans to wrap his hand in a club for Thursday’s practice and assess how Edoga feels. … USC will hold its second-annual shoe drive during Saturday’s game. The Trojans are collecting new and gently used shoes.
Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand