All Porter Gustin wanted was for this season to not be like the last one. Even with the announcement Wednesday by USC coach Clay Helton that Gustin will sit out anywhere from two to five weeks recovering from a minor tear in his meniscus, 2018 does not have to become a repeat of 2017.
Gustin, a senior outside linebacker and the “predator” of USC’s attacking defense, lost most of his junior year to injury. He hurt his big toe in the second game against Stanford, had surgery on it the next week and rushed back to play against Texas before injuring it further. Gustin missed the remainder of the season other than a brief appearance against Arizona State.
This time around, with the timetable provided by Helton, Gustin could miss the opener Sept. 1 against Nevada Las Vegas and, possibly, the Trojans’ Pac-12 opener at Stanford a week later. Of course USC would want him back for the showdown with the Cardinal, but if there is any doubt, expect the Trojans and Gustin to be more cautious than a year ago.
“You never know how people heal,” Helton said. “I always lean on two things: Is he medically cleared? Two, how does the player feel? When he’s 100%, he’ll go.”
Helton’s prayers from Tuesday, when Gustin was carted off the field during practice, were answered when the MRI exam revealed no ligament damage to the knee. He will have surgery Thursday.
“Knowing Porter, I know he’ll rehab the heck out of it,” Helton said.
Gustin’s latest injury and fellow inside linebacker Cameron Smith’s tight hamstring — he has missed the last three practices — have forced the Trojans to explore their depth at outside linebacker.
Junior Jordan Iosefa is proving as valuable as ever because he can play outside and inside. With Smith out, Iosefa has moved inside. With Gustin out too, both outside linebacker spots are open. On Wednesday, defensive end Christian Rector played in Gustin’s spot, while true freshman Kana’i Mauga manned the other outside spot. Redshirt freshman Hunter Echols and Juliano Falaniko have also rotated into that spot.
“Kana’i has given us the ability to work Jordan Iosefa back at Mike backer with Cam being down,” Helton said. “It’s good to see Kana’i doing what he’s doing. He’s way ahead of the game for a true freshman.”
Iosefa’s versatility has allowed for USC to be able to find a positive spin on these injuries.
“When Cam can come back, then Jordan will move outside,” defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast said. “But these have been good reps for him inside because as a staff we have planned during camp to have him in there.”
Helton said that USC is being extra cautious with Smith’s hamstring because if he comes back too early and injures it further the recovery time can extend to four to six weeks.
Center Toa Lobendahn moved back to his natural position during the off-season from left tackle. He’s been shaking off some rust with his snaps during the first five practices, and Wednesday, Helton pulled him from the lineup twice after bad snaps. Once, Helton threw a football at the ground in frustration.
“We’ll get it fixed,” Helton said. “The beauty of Toa is he’s started in three different positions, but I have no question. It gets better every day. That’s why you get 25 practices.”
Projected starting kicker Chase McGrath did not practice Wednesday.
“He’s got a little bit of a groin,” Helton said. “We’re being preventative. If you remember last year, he had that groin injury. We don’t want to over-kick him right now. He’s really strong.”
In McGrath’s place, Helton has liked what he has seen from redshirt freshman Michael Brown, who sat out last season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament.