The first punch cut through the air unobstructed, so JuJu Smith-Schuster reared back and launched another.
USC had been stewing since the start of Tuesday’s practice. Much of the energy was productive. But now it was convulsing into hostility.
A gratuitous celebration after a pass breakup had angered Smith-Schuster, USC’s No. 1 receiver. Words were exchanged. Frustration boiled. Smith-Schuster and safety Ykili Ross began to scuffle, and much of the defense joined.
After taking a few swings, Smith-Schuster and another player locked and hurled themselves at the turf. A third player was tossed nearby.
Smith-Schuster got up, separated himself and then kicked the football toward the simmering scrum. Then he began walking off the field.
He marched to the wall of the practice facility and sat there, slumped. Cornerback Adoree’ Jackson scurried over to settle him down. Coach Clay Helton and offensive coordinator Tee Martin talked to him, and Smith-Schuster eventually rejoined the team, though he did not play for the rest of the session.
Here was USC, the rumblings of a 52-6 loss to Alabama still echoing into the next week.
“We’ve got a mad football team right now,” Helton said. “Wish we could play today, to be honest with you. But it was ultra-competitive out here today, which is a good sign.”
Among the team, opinions split regarding the scuffle’s significance. Offensive tackle Zach Banner, who’d thrown up his hands when he saw Smith-Schuster walk off the field, said he wished the anger had been directed toward Utah State, USC’s next opponent.
“When you get a lot of anger off of what happened on Saturday, disappointment with ourselves, I think you let emotions fly,” Banner said. “It’s unacceptable. You’re not allowed to do that with your teammates.”
But Banner did say he thought USC “had a great practice.”
“It got the team fired up after that,” Davis said. “That’s something that we’ve got to have constantly. We’ve got to have the fire inside our belly.”
USC’s practice Tuesday had been intense even before the fracas. Helton said he told players in a team meeting that coaches would get on them quickly. Helton challenged them to be fast and spirited.
“Today, every play mattered,” Helton said.
Fights are not uncommon at football practices. Post-fisticuffs sulking, though not as frequent, also is not unheard of.
Helton said he appreciated Smith-Schuster’s competitiveness. He compared him to former Trojans receiver Marqise Lee. Both players, he said, want to have the ball on every play. And Smith-Schuster was limited to one reception by Alabama.
Smith-Schuster declined to speak with reporters after practice.
“Every day is a game to that kid, and that’s what I appreciate about him,” Helton said. “Scuffles happen in football practice, and we’re all brothers out here. Everyone hugged up and went on.”
Masina, Hill won’t play
Linebackers Osa Masina and Don Hill will not play for USC against Utah State on Saturday, Helton said.
Masina was named in a Los Angeles Police Department search warrant as a suspect in two sexual assault investigations, one in Los Angeles and one in Utah. In the warrant, Hill was also named a suspect in the alleged incident in Los Angeles.
“The university is allowing them to go to class, practice and meet,” Helton said.
Helton brushed off the possibility that former USC coach Steve Sarkisian consulted with Alabama before Saturday’s game. Alabama announced Monday that Sarkisian will join the team as an analyst.
“I don’t think — I’m just glad he’s in it, to be honest with you,” Helton said.
Sarkisian was fired in the middle of last season after erratic behavior. Sarkisian subsequently filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against the university, claiming he should have been allowed to seek treatment for alcoholism. The suit is headed for binding arbitration.
Helton said he texted Sarkisian on Tuesday morning to congratulate him on the new role.
Noah Jefferson, who suffered a sprained shoulder against Alabama, did not practice Tuesday and could miss Saturday’s game. “It’s going to be close, just being honest,” Helton said. … Center Toa Lobendahn missed Tuesday’s practice because of a knee injury that he sustained early in Saturday’s game but continued to play through. The injury is to his right knee. Lobendahn had surgery on his left knee last season. … Defensive tackle Khaliel Rodgers (hamstring) and linebacker Quinton Powell (illness) did not practice. … Tight end Taylor McNamara injured his ankle and was pulled from practice as a precaution. … Safety Jamel Cook, who broke his foot in the summer, returned to practice for the first time this season on Tuesday.