The horn sounded Monday, and a procession of injured USC players hobbled toward the practice gate, their presence an ominous reminder of how much was lost in a bittersweet victory.
Talanoa Hufanga, the Trojans’ star safety, wore a sling on his right shoulder. Drake Jackson, the standout freshman defensive end, lumbered closely behind, wearing a bulky padded boot on his left foot.
Both have established themselves as not only the future of USC’s defense, but also the present. But now, after a 41-14 win over Arizona, their status was uncertain. Neither was medically cleared to practice Monday — and may not be for some time.
Coach Clay Helton wouldn’t offer a timetable for either player’s return. But Hufanga, who dislocated his shoulder against Arizona, and Jackson, who suffered a high ankle sprain, both are expected to miss at least one game — and likely more. For both, Helton said, “it’s going to take some time.”
Neither will be easily replaced, even after a fleet of replacement players filled in admirably against Arizona. Hufanga leads USC in solo tackles per game this season, while Jackson paces the defense in sacks.
They’re not the only key players who suffered a serious injury against Arizona. An already beat-up backfield will be without running back Markese Stepp, who tore a ligament in his left ankle that will require surgery. He’ll be sidelined between three and five weeks, with a chance to return before the end of the season.
Stepp, who is averaging 6.4 yards per carry, wore a boot as he walked into practice alongside another injured back, Stephen Carr, who suffered a Grade 2 hamstring strain. Carr is likely to return before Stepp, but his timetable also is uncertain.
With both sidelined and leading rusher Vavae Malepeai nowhere near a return after surgery on his knee, USC will turn to a freshman and walk-on at running back.
That freshman, Kenan Christon, turned in quite a debut, speeding to two long touchdowns on his way to an eight-carry, 103-yard performance Saturday. But how much of a load the diminutive Christon can carry remains a question. Walk-on Quincy Jountti, who fumbled on his first carry against Arizona, is expected to complement Christon as a power back.
“He’s got to get reps,” running backs coach Mike Jinks said of Christon. “He’s got to get touches. You’ve got to put on that grown-man weight. If he had to go play a 12-game season, it’d be kind of tough, just where he is at a physical standpoint.”
There’s no sugarcoating just how much injuries have decimated USC’s depth over the last two weeks. As Helton spoke to the media, he needed a separate list to address all the injuries.
But with USC turning its attention to Friday’s game at Colorado, Helton refused to bemoan his team’s bad luck.
“As a coach, we’re not paid to make excuses,” Helton said. “We’re paid to find answers, and we’ll find those answers.”
Some answers on defense could be on the way, as a few players who battled injuries are hoping to return. Cornerback Olaijah Griffin, who sat out with lingering lower back issues, was at practice Monday and was joined by nickel back Greg Johnson, who sat out with a shoulder injury.
Senior defensive end Christian Rector, who has fought a painful high ankle sprain over the last month, could play on a limited basis. He did not practice Monday. Linebacker Palaie Gaoteote IV remains in a walking boot and is unlikely to return from a high ankle sprain this week.
Still, as he answered injury question after injury question, Helton reminded again that USC (4-3, 3-1) controls its destiny in the Pac-12.
“We’ve got a huge opportunity that stands right there for us,” he said. “We can write our own story right now.”
But after Saturday, with Hufanga, Jackson, Stepp and Carr all injured, even Helton seemed to realize how much harder finding a positive ending had become.
“We’re going to believe in the kids that are out here,” Helton said. “Hopefully we’ll get some back here soon.”