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USC gets one player back for football practice and hopes for several more

USC coach Clay Helton watches on the sideline during a game against Arizona.
USC coach Clay Helton watches on the sideline during a game against Arizona on Nov. 14 in Tucson, Ariz.
(Christian Petersen / Associated Press)

Ten days after USC’s plane ride home from Utah triggered an outbreak that interrupted its football season, a compromised roster is beginning to come together again.

One player left quarantine and returned to practice Wednesday after being exposed to COVID-19 last week, and several more are expected to follow ahead of Sunday’s meeting with Washington State at the Coliseum, which was pushed back from Friday to allow for isolated players to return.

But how many will return and where USC’s roster might stand by Sunday remains up in the air. Ten Trojans were still in quarantine as of Thursday, three because of positive cases of coronavirus and the remaining seven because of contact tracing.

Those protocols led the Pac-12 to cancel USC’s previous game against Colorado, as the Trojans were left without enough scholarship offensive linemen to reach the minimum threshold of seven set by the conference. USC has 15 linemen currently on scholarship, meaning more than half of the position group was unavailable last week, either because of injury or COVID-19 exposure.

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Former USC kicker Chase McGrath entered the NCAA transfer portal this week after losing his starting job to freshman Parker Lewis earlier this season.

At least a few of those are believed to be starters. Several could return by Sunday when the required 14-day isolation period ends for the five players deemed close contacts early last week. The two players who tested positive for the coronavirus Nov. 23 and Nov. 24 could also be available after quarantining for the required 10 days.

What that might mean for an offensive line that was nearly wiped out last week is unclear. USC coach Clay Helton wouldn’t say Thursday how many linemen he expects to return, but with six freshmen at the position — and three in the two-deep depth chart — any absences along the line could force the Trojans to rely on an inexperienced group up front.

USC tried to prepare for such a predicament ahead of this season, with the expectation that one position could at any moment be decimated by COVID-19 exposure. This week, that preparation may finally be put to the test.

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“Those kids have mixed in with the ones and had the opportunity to go with [quarterback] Kedon [Slovis] and be a part of it,” Helton said. “So it doesn’t matter who’s called upon. They’ll do their job. I’ve got a lot of faith.”

After conducting five rounds of testing over three days without any new positive cases, Helton said he believes USC is in “a really good spot” to be cleared for Sunday’s game.

“Good Lord willing, cross your fingers, we will continue to be,” he said.

Helton had similar hope last Thursday, before a third positive case forced additional players into a 14-day quarantine. The Colorado game was canceled a few hours later.

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The threshold for such a decision could change in the coming days. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention implemented new guidelines this week aimed at reducing that isolation period to 10 days — or seven, with a negative test. But those adjusted rules wouldn’t have helped USC last week and have yet to be put into effect by state or county public health officials.

“I was as happy as anybody when I saw that,” Helton said, “but they said, ‘Coach, just realize there’s a process to it, and it does have to go through that process.’ So just like we’ve done this whole time, we’re gonna listen to our federal, state and local guidelines, follow them to a T and when it gets to us, that’ll be a happy day.”

The USC football team resumes workouts after positive coronavirus tests prompted the cancellation of last week’s game against Colorado.

Contingency plans

A three-week ban on contact sports in Santa Clara County was imposed this week, forcing Stanford to take its program on the road for the remainder of this season.

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Could a similar ban soon push USC away from Los Angeles?

Far-reaching new restrictions for the rest of the state were announced by Gov. Gavin Newsom on Thursday, calling into question if contact sports in the state will be allowed going forward.

There was enough concern at USC this week that its athletic department is actively working on contingency plans to finish the season if it’s no longer allowed to play in L.A.

“It’s been a lot of discussion here, just being honest with you,” Helton said. “Thank goodness for our administration because we know things may change. We’re hoping that our levels go down, and we don’t have to go to that shutdown. But if we do then we’ll find the next answer.”

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Etc.

Palaie Gaoteote is “starting to feel better,” Helton said, but the starting inside linebacker remains in the concussion protocol and is unlikely to play Sunday. … Ralen Goforth, USC’s other starting inside linebacker, will be a game-time decision. Helton called his foot sprain “a pretty significant one,” but Goforth has practiced in a limited fashion this week.


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