USC opens training camp hurting for depth on offensive line and at linebacker
With soft-tissue injuries on the rise ahead of a postponed season and the threat of positive coronavirus tests still looming, proper depth has perhaps never been so important.
For USC’s offensive line and linebacking corps, it’s also never been in such short supply.
The Trojans opened training camp Friday down two potential starting linebackers because of season-ending knee injuries and two reserve offensive linemen, redshirt seniors Frank Martin and Bernard Schirmer, both of whom chose to opt out of the pandemic-shortened season.
Defensive lineman Jacob Lichtenstein, who was expected to play a rotational role up front, also chose to opt out of the season.
Redshirt senior linebacker Jordan Iosefa, who sat out last season with a dislocated kneecap, will have to sit out this season after undergoing a knee scope to clean out scar tissue from his previous injury. Redshirt sophomore linebacker Solomon Tuliaupupu suffered a season-ending knee injury during practice and was scheduled to have surgery on Friday.
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It’s a particularly bitter pill for Tuliaupupu, who has yet to play a down for the Trojans after suffering a Lisfranc injury as a senior at Santa Ana Mater Dei High. The former four-star prospect’s lingering foot injury has kept him out each of the past two seasons, but had finally healed properly heading into fall. His knee injury, according to USC coach Clay Helton, was unrelated to his original Lisfranc injury.
Reached by The Times prior to his surgery, Tuliaupupu responded via text that he had “no choice, but to play the cards I’m dealt! I’ll be back in no time!”
In Iosefa’s case, Helton said the 2019 team captain may have been able to return if the season lasted more than just seven games, but that “we want him to be able to have the best experience possible.”
Helton spoke highly of the Trojans’ remaining linebackers, but admitted that the loss of Iosefa and Tuliaupupu was a blow to their depth.
“From a linebacker standpoint, we entered the fall looking pretty good,” Helton said. “When you lose the quality of a player like Jordan Iosefa, and we were extremely excited about Solo — and pretty heartbroken over it because I know the amount of work that he’s put in to have the chance to have his foot well.”
The offensive line received a serious boost to an otherwise dwindling depth chart earlier this week, when All-Pac-12 lineman Alijah Vera-Tucker announced that he would return. But while he’s locked in at left tackle moving forward, the Trojans don’t have much experience to lean on up front.
Outside of Vera-Tucker, Helton mentioned Andrew Vorhees, Brett Neilon, and Liam Jimmons as linemen with experience, but only Vorhees (20 starts) has started multiple games over multiple seasons. Jalen McKenzie, the presumed starting right tackle, has 14 starts to his name.
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Beyond those five, who are believed to be frontrunners along the offensive front, USC is going to have to bring the rest of its linemen along in a hurry.
“It’s really going to be important for us to grow this team from the bottom up, not only because of injuries, but because all of a sudden, you could have a positive test, and that next guy is up like that,” Helton said. “For us, it’s even those six freshmen that we signed. We’re going to have to train them like they’re getting ready to start a game — because they could.”
As USC finally opened camp, it did so down one of its young playmakers at wideout.
Munir McClain has been suspended from all team activities for the past three weeks, but remains on the active roster, Helton said.
Exactly why he was suspended — and for how long — remains unclear. When asked for the reason behind the decision on Friday, Helton told reporters only that he can’t “discuss a student issue.”
A standout in training camp last fall, McClain tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee last October. He caught three passes for 19 yards prior to the season-ending injury.
While McClain remains away from team activities, he has continued to rehabilitate that injury at USC. He has also continued to undergo regular coronavirus testing and pick up to-go meals, courtesy of the team.
Sophomore Drake Jackson, who transitioned from defensive end to outside linebacker in the offseason, is nursing a hamstring injury and will be “limited” to start camp. … Running back Markese Stepp looked “very good” (according to Helton) after dealing with a nagging ankle injury at the end of last season. … Tight end Ethan Rae, who had knee surgery, and inside linebacker Ethan Winston, who had ankle surgery, won’t be available to start camp. … USC began its daily antigen testing with Quidel on Friday. Helton said that testing the entire team would take between 90 minutes and two hours daily. … After USC celebrated the end of his disassociation ban in June, former running back Reggie Bush was with the team on campus Friday.
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