Matt Grootegoed can hardly believe it.
Nine games into what might become USC’s finest season in years, he is not only standing but also healthfully thriving as the strong-side linebacker for the eighth-ranked Trojans.
“I just hope I don’t jinx myself,” Grootegoed said this week.
There is reason for caution. Illness and injury laid out Grootegoed like a crack-back block during his first two years at USC.
The 2000 season ended for Grootegoed almost as soon as it began when he was diagnosed with mononucleosis after the first game. Shoulder injuries and a pinched nerve in his neck plagued him last season. A broken leg finished it.
This season, Grootegoed is the leading tackler for a defense that ranks second in the Pacific 10 Conference.
Last week against Stanford, he had eight tackles and three of USC’s season-high seven sacks during a 49-17 victory that kept the Trojans in the race for the Rose Bowl or another bowl championship series game.
USC plays Arizona State on Saturday.
“Things just happen when he’s on the field,” USC Coach Pete Carroll said. “He knocks the ball down, knocks the ball loose, forces plays in the backfield and makes unusual plays getting off blocks. You can’t hold him down.”
Grootegoed, a converted safety who starred at Santa Ana Mater Dei High, is small for a linebacker. Generously listed at 5 feet 11 and weighing 210 pounds, he routinely lines up across from tight ends five or more inches taller and 30 to 40 pounds heavier.
“He doesn’t look like he’s super athletic or super strong, but he’s both,” Trojan tight end Alex Holmes said. “Plus, he’s low to the ground so he’s a much harder guy to block than a taller linebacker.”
Quickness and speed also help Grootegoed compensate for size mismatches.
“I try to make a little move before those big guys can even get out of their stance,” said Grootegoed, who has 11 1/2 tackles for losses. “It gives me an edge so they can’t get their hands on me.”
Like All-American strong safety Troy Polamalu, Grootegoed rarely displays emotion after his bone-jarring hits in the backfield. The public policy and management major shies from public displays or pronouncements.
“He’s quieter than a church-house mouse,” cornerback Darrell Rideaux said. “But he’s definitely a presence on the field.”
There were times during the last two years when Grootegoed wondered if he would ever again take the field for the Trojans.
Grootegoed’s health problems at USC started before the first game of the 2000 season when the Trojans traveled to East Rutherford, N.J., to play Penn State in the Kickoff Classic.
“I thought I had the flu, but I didn’t tell anybody because I didn’t want to be the guy who gets sick before his first college game,” Grootegoed said.
A few days after playing on special teams during the Trojans’ victory, Grootegoed blacked out in the locker room after running sprints. His temperature hit 104 and blood tests revealed mononucleosis. He was sidelined for two months then declared out for the season when more tests revealed an enlarged spleen.
“I came back for winter conditioning and it was like, ‘Who is this guy?’ ” he said. “Some of the guys were calling me Ghost because I was gone and then just showed up again.”
Grootegoed played safety behind Polamalu during spring practice in 2001 but was asked by Carroll to move to strongside linebacker during fall training camp.
“They needed to find a way to get him onto the field,” middle linebacker Mike Pollard said.
Grootegoed said the transition was easy until the games began. He suffered a left shoulder sprain in the second week against Kansas State and missed the next two games. When he came back, he played despite an injured right shoulder and pinched nerve in his neck that prevented him from lifting weights and maintaining his strength.
Still, he was feeling strong against California last Nov. 10 when he penetrated into the backfield to make a play and suffered a broken right leg. Grootegoed watched the UCLA game and the Las Vegas Bowl from a wheelchair on the sideline, sat out spring practice and could not attempt to run at full speed until training camp began in August.
“Coach Carroll and others told me to just fight through the pain, so that’s what I did,” Grootegoed said. “It takes a good half-hour to warm up that leg, but after that it feels fine.”
Polamalu said playing with Grootegoed, “is like having a twin on the other side of the field.” The Thorpe Award candidate said Grootegoed will shine next season if he is allowed to return to strong safety.
“He’s better than I am, he just hasn’t had the platform yet,” Polamalu said. “As soon as he gets it, everybody is going to see because he has everything it takes.”
Carroll, however, said there are no plans to move Grootegoed back into the secondary.
“He’s so far along with what he’s doing and so good at it, we couldn’t afford to take all that experience away from the position,” Carroll said.
Grootegoed said he will play wherever the Trojans need him next season.
But with so much riding on the next three games, he is concerned only about maintaining his high level of play throughout this one.
“Maybe it’s luck,” he said. “I’m not changing anything or trying to do anything crazy. I’m just playing more freely. I’m not scared to make mistakes anymore. I’m confident.”
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On the Defensive
Matt Grootegoed leads USC in tackles. A look at the Trojan leaders:
*--* Player Solo Ast Tot Matt Grootegoed 45 14 59 Troy Polamalu 40 14 54 Melvin Simmons 30 23 53 DeShaun Hill 33 7 40 Kenechi Udeze 26 9 35 Darrell Rideaux 27 5 32 Mike Patterson 23 8 31 Mike Pollard 21 10 31 Omar Nazel 23 7 30 Jason Leach 17 7 24