At USC, football really is a numbers game

Hundreds of asterisks dot USC's football media guide, most resulting from NCAA sanctions related to Reggie Bush and the seasons he played for the Trojans.

But where Bush might want an asterisk, there is none to be found. On a page listing jerseys worn by Trojans All-Americans, Mike Garrett's No. 20, O.J. Simpson's No. 32, Charles White's No. 12, Marcus Allen's No. 33, Carson Palmer's No. 3 and Matt Leinart's No. 11 carry asterisks denoting "jersey number currently retired."

Each of those players won the Heisman Trophy. And Bush did, too. However, his No. 5 is unadorned and in limbo, caught up in the maelstrom that prompted the 2005 Heisman winner to return his trophy and required the university to "disassociate" itself from the former Trojans star.

"I can't imagine anyone wearing it — certainly for awhile," Athletic Director Pat Haden said. "I don't see it coming back any time soon."

The iconic No. 5 is not the only USC number out of circulation.

Shortly after returning to USC as head coach last year, Lane Kiffin stripped cornerback T.J. Bryant and receiver De'Von Flournoy of jersey No. 1 and decreed that the uniform number worn by All-American receiver Mike Williams was unavailable until further notice.

He also pulled from possible use No. 43, which had been worn by All-American safety Troy Polamalu.

Going forward, Kiffin said, players would have to earn the right to wear those numbers.

"We've just got to find people that are representing them the right way now that there's an understanding of what those numbers mean to us," he said Tuesday.

Tradition surrounds certain numbers at USC, most notably 55.

Junior Seau, Willie McGinest, Chris Claiborne and Keith Rivers are among the linebackers who have worn a number that Trojans coaches have been careful to distribute.

Former coach John Robinson said Claiborne, who came to USC in 1996, wanted the same single-digit number he had worn at Riverside North High.

"We told him he had to wear 55 because he was going to be great player," Robinson recalled. "He didn't think it was great at the time. Once he got in it and recognized it was special, he liked it."

Claiborne went on to become the only USC player to win the Butkus Award, presented annually to the nation's top linebacker.

At times, coaches have gone so far as to talk to the Trojans who have worn No. 55 about a player they were considering for the number. "To tell them about the guy and what we're thinking," Kiffin said, "just because it's a unique club and we want those guys to feel good about the guys that are in them."

Rivers, from Florida, was unfamiliar with the significance of 55 when he arrived at USC in 2004. It struck home during a practice in his freshman season when fellow linebacker Lofa Tatupu gently chided him for not finishing a play.

"Lofa said, 'Man, you have the 5's on. It means too much,'" recalled Rivers, who went on to become the ninth player picked in the 2008 NFL draft. "You're supposed to be good if you're wearing it. You want to live up to it to be part of that fraternity."

No player wore 55 the last two years, but Kiffin said he awarded it this season to freshman linebacker Lamar Dawson after researching his background with high school coaches and counselors in Kentucky.

"Keith was a great student, a serious football guy," Kiffin said. "He came back and is working back on his masters, that's the type of guy he is, and a top-10 pick. Lamar's that type of kid. It's not something that we just said the first day we saw him on film, 'Give him 55.' We had to dig in to see who he was."

Dawson is aware of the significance.

"It's an honor to wear this number," he said. "I'm just going to live up to it to the best of my ability."

For a time, No. 35 also took on a life of its own among linebackers.

It began with linebacker Riki Ellison, who played as Riki Gray from 1978-82, and was carried on by players such as All-American Scott Ross and Jeff Kopp. Taso Papadakis fulfilled a dream by wearing the number, but when injuries cut short his career, he asked his brother Petros to wear it.

Petros, a running back, took on the number then saw it later go to linebacker Lee Webb. This season, punters Kyle Negrete and Chris Albarado share it.

"I think it's a travesty and I feel a little responsible," Petros Papadakis said. "I think a guy like Scott Ross or Riki should say, 'Hey, this needs to be on a linebacker.'"

The No. 42 has traveled among positions but still carries major significance within the program.

Tailback Ricky Bell, safety Ronnie Lott and receiver Erik Affholter are among those who wore a number that now belongs to junior defensive end Devon Kennard.

Lott wore No. 42 at Rialto Eisenhower High, but the number took on added significance in the wake of Bell's outstanding work ethic and career.

"Obviously, with what Ricky was able to accomplish, it definitely inspired me in terms of living up to that number," Lott said.

Kennard, who also wore No. 42 in high school in Arizona, feels similarly about the number's legacy. Former Coach Pete Carroll often told Kennard he had big shoes to fill.

"I take that personally," Kennard said. "By the end of my career, hopefully kids are saying, 'Ronnie Lott and Devon Kennard wore that number.'"

Will any USC player ever get to say the same about Bush's former number?

"I don't know if anyone would want to wear it," Kiffin said. "You're talking about arguably the greatest college player to ever play the game, and then the stuff afterward that surrounds it.

"It's a lot of weight on an 18-year-old kid's shoulders."

Senior tailback Marc Tyler agreed.

"I wouldn't wear it," he said. "Out of respect to him and just because there would be a lot of pressure in that jersey. Nobody could do what he did here on the field. It was crazy."

Kiffin envisioned one scenario where No. 5 would have to be ushered back into service.

"If it goes as planned and we get a bunch of really good players in here and win some more Heismans, we're going to have to because we're going to run out of numbers," Kiffin said. "Hopefully, that will be the case."

gary.klein@latimes.com

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