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USC's Porter Gustin is ready to return to the field after sitting out most of last season due to injury

USC's Porter Gustin is ready to return to the field after sitting out most of last season due to injury
USC linebacker Porter Gustin, 45, and defensive lineman Christian Rector, 89, run to the workout station during spring practice at Howard Jones Field. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

During the last year, as Porter Gustin has rehabbed several injuries that have kept him from emerging into a star, USC’s coaches and trainers have learned that the Trojans’ workout warrior requires his own set of rules for recovery.

This time around, USC coach Clay Helton may have set Gustin’s timetable for a return from meniscus surgery as two to five weeks. But, after two weeks, Gustin was being watched closely at practices.

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“He was anxious last week,” USC defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast said. “We had to take his helmet from him.”

No one can blame Gustin for being antsy after missing the last three-fourths of the 2017 season with a lingering toe injury and then sitting out three weeks of his final fall camp. The senior outside linebacker tried to be more cautious about this rehab, considering he has expressed that he may have come back from his toe injury too early last season in an effort to play in the home game against Texas.

His newfound patience appears to have paid off. Gustin had a full-contact practice Tuesday and said after Wednesday’s practice that he has been cleared to play Saturday against Nevada Las Vegas. Barring unforeseen pain or swelling in the knee, he expects to be out there.

“I’m going to make sure I’m ready to go and I’m able to perform at a high level, what I think is my 100%,” Gustin said. “Even as early as I came back, I felt like I could have come back earlier than that, but I wanted to take things slower, make sure I was running out here without pads first.”

Pendergast has big plans for Gustin, who plays the “predator” role in USC’s attacking 2-4-5 defense.

“I’m really looking forward to watching him play,” Pendergast said. “With the sack total we had last year, we didn’t really even have him for the whole season, it would have added to it. We’re going to move him around a lot in pass-rush situations to benefit us from a matchup standpoint.”

Gustin has been arriving at the McKay Center every morning at 5:30 to start his daily exercises. Helton seemed dubious from the start that Gustin would allow himself to miss the opener because of his inherent love of grueling workouts.

“I’m just excited to go out there and play,” Gustin said. “It’s been a long time, too long.”

Pendergast suggested USC may have him on a snap count Saturday. Of course, he also knows that could be complicated with Gustin.

“I feel like we’ve got people who could take 20, 25 plays off him in a game,” Pendergast said, “but you’ve got to take his helmet to keep him off the field. We have to have somebody just watching that.”

Lobendahn ‘day to day’

USC center Toa Lobendahn missed his second straight practice Wednesday with a pectoral strain.

“We’ll see,” Helton said of his availability for Saturday. “We’re taking it day to day, and you know, he’s gotten so many reps and so much experience, has been in the system so long, he doesn’t need a lot of reps during the week. We’ll see where we’re at by tomorrow and Friday.”

If Lobendahn can’t play Saturday, redshirt freshman Brett Neilon would get the start in his first career game. Helton was reminded that, with JT Daniels getting the start at quarterback, he could have a quarterback and center making their debuts in the opener.

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“I’ll go take my Pepto Bismol now,” Helton joked.

Johnson to start at cornerback

USC did not declare a clear winner in the competition at cornerback between senior Isaiah Langley and redshirt freshman Greg Johnson, listing them as “OR” on the depth chart.

Pendergast said Johnson will start Saturday.

“We felt like Greg just had a little better spring ball and camp,” Pendergast said. “It was a good competition, and both those guys will play a lot.”

Etc.

Helton said that starting left tackle Austin Jackson is progressing well in recovering from an ankle injury. He’s probable for Saturday. … True freshman running back Markese Stepp has been cleared from concussion protocol but won’t play Saturday. … Tight end Josh Falo who left practice with a tight hamstring Tuesday was held out Wednesday “being preventative,” Helton said. … More injuries: Palaie Gaoteote (meniscus surgery, ruled out for Saturday); Josh Imatorbhebhe (ankle rehab); Daniel Imatorbhebhe (quad rehab); Austin Applebee (mononucleosis); Jordan Austin (pectoral strain).

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