USC resumes football workouts after coronavirus shutdown

USC coach Clay Helton watches from the sideline against Arizona.
USC coach Clay Helton said the Trojans would resume workouts Tuesday in preparation for Sunday’s game against Washington State.
(Christian Petersen / Associated Press)

Last Wednesday, with two players testing positive for the coronavirus and five more quarantined because of contact tracing, USC was nonetheless cleared by public health officials to resume football practice.

It didn’t last long. The Trojans held just one in-person session before another positive test put everything on pause again, eventually forcing the Pac-12 to cancel their meeting with Colorado.

Six days after that shutdown — and following a full round of negative tests Monday — USC was cleared again to resume on Tuesday. The question now is whether enough of its players will return from isolation for its rescheduled Sunday meeting with Washington State to continue as planned.

“We feel like we’ve done a good job of shutting this thing down, hopefully,” USC coach Clay Helton said Tuesday. “We’ll see how that progresses through the week, but to have yesterday for our players with no positive tests, that was awesome.”


Sunday’s game between USC and Washington State has been moved up to 4:30 p.m.

Helton expressed similar optimism last week, just hours before practice was shut down and the game was canceled. Washington State coach Nick Rolovich, whose Cougars had their previous two games canceled because of COVID-19 issues, also conveyed confidence this week that his team would be intact enough to continue.

Further testing will continue at both schools through the weekend, and an additional positive case at either could still derail Sunday’s game at the Coliseum. But assuming no new cases arise, USC is expecting to return enough players to reach the required threshold of scholarship players on its offensive line, which was hit especially hard by last week’s outbreak.

It wasn’t immediately clear exactly how many of the 11 unidentified USC players now in isolation would be able to return by Sunday. The game was moved from Friday night to Sunday, presumably to allow time for the five close contacts first forced into quarantine to return.

Helton said Tuesday that he expected “an adequate enough number” to be cleared by then.

Los Angeles County public health guidelines dictate that anyone deemed to be in close contact with a person who tested positive must isolate for 14 days. If that contact came no later than during the team plane ride home from Salt Lake City on the night of Nov. 21, all seven players affected early last week by the initial two cases could presumably be cleared to play.

That includes the two players that initially tested positive, who, according to guidelines set by the county, are only required to isolate for 10 days after a positive test.

A third USC player who tested positive Thursday could also potentially return, depending on when the clock began on his required 10-day window. But the remaining three in isolation — one positive and the other two considered close contacts — are unlikely to be cleared by Sunday.

Regardless, none of those reinforcements will be available until at least later this week, leaving USC short-handed in practice after an already long layoff. The Trojans were still below the conference-mandated minimum of seven scholarship linemen as of Tuesday, and Helton said that they’re unlikely to be able to field a full scout team throughout this week.

Still, USC plans to hold a full-contact practice Wednesday.

A torn ACL derailed JT Daniels’ promising career at USC, but he didn’t let adversity block his rise to the top of a crowded quarterback room at Georgia.

“We are going to have to be creative,” Helton said. “You’re not going to be able to have enough bodies to have the amount of physical contact you need. It will not be a normal practice week for us.”

For the handful of players planning to return just in time to play Washington State, this week could be especially irregular. The five players expecting to be cleared after two full weeks of quarantine won’t be able to practice at all before Sunday.

Helton said USC formed a plan last week aimed at keeping isolated players in proper condition to play. Several of those players, he noted last week, are starters or veteran contributors.

How much they’ll actually be able to contribute after such a long layoff is still up in the air. But for the second straight week, Helton and his staff are preparing to rely on young, inexperienced players to carry the load.

“There are probably going to be some young people in there on Sunday,” Helton said. “It’s exciting. I can’t wait to watch them play. I was excited last week.”

Concussion protocol

Seventeen days after he left USC’s game with Arizona with a cut on his head, linebacker Palaie Gaoteote is still in the concussion protocol, leaving the Trojans without their top inside linebacker.

Helton said Tuesday that there’s no cause for concern about Gaoteote’s recovery. Still, the coach offered no timetable for his junior linebacker’s return.

“We’re never going to mess around,” Helton said. “If it takes days, weeks, whatever it is, we’re not playing around with that. I know he’s improving.”

Gaoteote isn’t the only linebacker on the mend. Ralen Goforth, who’s dealing with a foot sprain, will test his foot through limited practice sessions to start the week.