Injuries create uncertainty for USC at linebacker position
When training camp opened last month, Raymond Scott had high hopes of playing safety. But by the end of October, with a shortened season fast approaching, USC coaches wondered if Scott might be better served at linebacker, where more opportunities could become available.
A few weeks and an injury later, the former safety is already in line for snaps at his new position.
USC is planning to play without inside linebacker Palaie Gaoteote on Saturday as he remains in concussion protocol. And without the former five-star patrolling the middle of the defense, the Trojans will be forced to rely on Ralen Goforth, who has been inconsistent through two games; Kana’i Mauga, who sat out most of camp; and Scott and Tuasivi Nomura, who before this season had two combined tackles.
“With the physicality that Utah brings to the table with the run game, I think you’ll probably see all of them in this game,” coach Clay Helton said.
Even before Gaoteote left the game Saturday, linebacker was a major cause for concern. Injuries to Jordan Iosefa, Solomon Tuliaupupu and Elijah Winston in the offseason robbed depth from an already unproven position. Mauga missed most of camp with a hamstring injury before playing just four snaps in the opener. And Goforth, when asked to evaluate his play through two games, said he “wasn’t very happy.”
Sophomore Drake Jackson remains the hinge point of a Trojans defense otherwise lacking in pass-rush options.
Through two games, USC ranks 108th nationally in rush defense, allowing 208 yards per game.
Defensive coordinator Todd Orlando, who personally coaches the position, struck a softer tone this week in evaluating the linebackers. Still, he acknowledged their performance was plagued by correctable mistakes, such as taking bad angles at the ball carrier.
Against the Pac-12’s top rushing attack from a year ago, those minor mistakes could make a major difference this week. Utah has yet to play this season and must replace the conference’s leading rusher from last season, Zack Moss, with a committee of backs. But under coach Kyle Whittingham, few Pac-12 teams have been more consistent on the ground. Only once in the past five seasons have the Utes finished outside the top four.
Reinforcements up front could help keep that rushing attack in check. Defensive tackle Brandon Pili (finger) practiced this week and is “a possibility” for Saturday, Helton said. Another defensive tackle, Caleb Tremblay (stingers), will be a “game-time decision.”
But at linebacker, plenty of uncertainty remains. Helton said he thought Mauga “looked like himself again” against Arizona, and both he and Orlando have expressed confidence in Scott, less than one month after he moved to linebacker.
“His athleticism is what stood out,” Helton said. “You look at that, he’s got a linebacker body at 220-225 pounds, but he’s got safety athleticism and T.O. really liked that, the athleticism and how fast he picked it up.”
In early October, Jacob Lichtenstein was one of three Trojans to opt out of the shortened football season over concerns about COVID-19. But two weeks into USC’s season, the redshirt junior defensive lineman has reversed course.
Pac-12 football teams will be allowed to play nonconference games, giving them more flexibility if there are cancellations due to the pandemic.
Helton said Thursday that Lichtenstein plans to opt in and rejoin the team in the coming days. Lichtenstein, who hasn’t been with the team this season, won’t be available Saturday as he returns to campus and undertakes the necessary health and safety protocols.
“He’s obviously a great player that has been waiting his time, whether it was health reasons or in a backup role,” Helton said. “To come contribute, and in this situation we’re in, with a little bit of down bodies on that defensive front, he could be somebody that could help us.”
After sitting out last Saturday with an ankle injury, center Brett Neilon practiced this week and could potentially return to USC’s offensive line.
Helton called Neilon “a game-time decision” for Utah but also said that he thinks the junior center “is going to be an option for us.”
“We’ll see today and tomorrow how it goes,” Helton added.
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