After concluding the final on-campus football practice of the year Tuesday morning, USC coach Clay Helton gathered his players in the middle of the field and thanked them for the school’s most successful season in nearly a decade.
“I’m very, very proud of the advances you’ve made,” he told them. He then asked the seniors to stand to receive a round of applause from their teammates.
“Our last time for the seniors on the practice field is always a special moment,” Helton said afterward. “They’ve been nothing but first class.
“I love them to death. I’m going to miss them. I can’t talk too much about them or I’ll get emotional.”
After practice, the players were dismissed for two days to celebrate the holidays with their families before the team flies Saturday to Dallas to finish preparations for next week’s Cotton Bowl showdown with No. 5 Ohio State.
Asked why he feted the seniors Tuesday rather than waiting until after the Trojans’ final workout in Texas, Helton nodded toward the practice field, which is ringed with banners celebrating USC’s numerous national championships, Heisman Trophy winners and Hall of Fame players.
“There’s something special about this field,” he said. “There’s so much history as you look around this field and you think about the people that have competed on this field.
“When you’ve given blood, sweat and tears on a field for four to five years and you know it’s your last time on it in pads against your brothers, it’s special.”
Special is also the word Helton, a former college quarterback and quarterback coach, summed up the Cotton Bowl matchup between preseason Heisman contenders J.T. Barrett of Ohio State and Sam Darnold of USC.
Both quarterbacks led their teams to 11 wins and conference championships, though they did so in different ways. Barrett, a mobile senior, is a double threat who passed for 2,928 yards and 35 touchdowns and ran for 743 yards and 10 scores.
Darnold, a redshirt sophomore who is less likely to run than Barrett, threw passed for nearly 3,800 yards and 26 touchdowns.
“You watch that game just for those two guys,” Helton said. “Those are two elite quarterbacks that are going to be stepping [under] the brightest lights.
“It’s always neat to watch those type of kids square off.”
Receiver and kick returner Velus Jones, who had his left foot wrapped and watched practice from a motorized scooter for a second consecutive day, was the most hobbled USC player on the field Tuesday. Helton characterized the injury as a “laceration” and said he expects Jones to play against Ohio State.
Helton didn’t give updates on the other banged-up Trojans, though only outside linebacker Porter Gustin appears questionable for the Cotton Bowl. Gustin is recovering from a toe fracture sustained in September.
Wednesday is the first day of college football’s first early signing period, although it may not be a red-letter day for USC. Wide receiver Andre Hunt from Lancaster Paraclete High, who had committed to USC, changed his mind Monday and said he won’t sign with the school. Bo Calvert of Westlake Village Oaks Christian, another early commit, now appears likely to go to UCLA instead.
USC is still expected to land four-star prospect Justin Dedich, a center from Temecula’s Chaparral High, and five-star linebacker Palaie Gaoteote of Bishop Gorman High in Las Vegas.
The early recruiting period poses a bit of a challenge for Helton and his staff, who aren’t sure how many scholarships they’ll be able to offer. Several underclassmen — among them Darnold, defensive end Rasheem Green, running back Ronald Jones II and offensive lineman Toa Lobendahn — have another month to decide if they will return to USC or declare for the NFL draft.
Follow Kevin Baxter on Twitter @kbaxter11