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USC linebacker Palaie Gaoteote enters NCAA transfer portal

A close-up of Palaie Gaoteote, in USC uniform, on the field.
Linebacker Palaie Gaoteote has entered the NCAA transfer portal after three seasons at USC.
(Rick Scuteri / Associated Press)

Tough coaching was supposed to put Palaie Gaoteote‘s career back on track, but after a few months under new USC defensive coordinator Todd Orlando, the promising former five-star linebacker is on his way out of L.A.

Gaoteote has entered the NCAA transfer portal after three seasons at USC, presumably closing the book on an up-and-down tenure with the Trojans.

The junior linebacker missed the previous two games while in concussion protocol, but had been billed for a major role in USC’s revamped defense. His departure leaves the Trojans especially thin at inside linebacker, where their depth already was decimated by injuries this season.

Clay Helton left open the possibility that Gaoteote could still return to USC during his weekly appearance on the “Trojans Live” radio show Monday night.

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“We love EA,” Helton said. “We hope that whatever his decision is that it’s best for him, and so I hope it’s here — I really do. That door’s open, but he wants to be able to explore every option and we’ll give him the time to do that.”

The shortened season seemed like an ideal opportunity for Gaoteote, who arrived at USC in 2018 as one of the nation’s top linebacker prospects. Injuries slowed his progress over his first two seasons, which were otherwise marred by missed tackles and lapses in technique.

A season that could have led to Clay Helton’s undoing instead might give him a stronger hold on his job as USC coach.

But with a new coordinator and a new defensive scheme, coaches raved ahead of this season about Gaoteote’s potential.

Unlocking that raw talent meant taking a tough love approach to coaching the talented linebacker, one that both Orlando and Helton believed was working. The USC coach went so far as to say last month that Orlando’s coaching was “probably as good of a thing that could’ve happened to [Gaoteote] in his career, to be honest with you.”

“Todd has been really, really hard on him,” Helton said last month. “I always believe you coach your best players the hardest, and that’s what he’s doing. [Gaoteote] is accepting hard coaching. That’s what great players do — the ability to take advice and transfer it over to team situations. This is a really good relationship.”

Orlando alluded at the time to “some hard love” behind the scenes between coach and linebacker, while Gaoteote described his new defensive coordinator as “a straight shooter.”

Coach and linebacker seemed to be on the same page, but that brutally honest approach had yet to translate much onto the field through two games. Gaoteote had just nine tackles, while USC’s run defense struggled mightily over that early stretch.

Behind four touchdown catches by wide receiver Amon-ra St. Brown, USC starts fast and never looks back in a 38-13 victory over Washington State.

Gaoteote missed the next two games, just as the Trojans’ run defense began to turn things around. Kana’i Mauga took his place in the middle of USC’s defense and racked up 11 tackles against Utah. Then on Sunday, safety Talanoa Hufanga moved to linebacker and led the Trojans in tackles (nine) and added a sack and an interception.

With Gaoteote on his way out — and three other inside linebackers out for the season — USC might have to continue with a creative approach in the middle of its defense. Ralen Goforth, the other starter at inside linebacker, missed Sunday’s game with a mid-foot sprain after logging some limited practice time through the week.

Raymond Scott, a converted safety, is next up on USC’s depth chart at middle linebacker. Beyond that, USC could be forced to count on redshirt sophomore Tayler Katoa, who missed the last two seasons while on a Mormon mission, and redshirt freshman Tuasivi Nomura, who has just two career tackles.

Season-ending injuries

USC had been relatively fortunate on the injury front, but on Sunday, it lost two key contributors for the rest of its season.

Junior defensive back Greg Johnson injured his knee against Washington State, while redshirt freshman tight end Jude Wolfe injured his foot. Neither will be able to return over the season’s final few weeks.

Johnson spent most of the season as USC’s starting nickel safety, but was beginning to lose snaps to redshirt freshman Max Williams, who’s now expected to step into his starting spot.

Wolfe had actually been playing more snaps than senior tight end Erik Krommenhoek, who came into the season atop the depth chart. But Wolfe’s season will end after just two catches for five yards.

Pac-12 tiebreakers

Win, and you’re in: It’s that simple for the Trojans to get to the Pac-12 title game.

A loss to their crosstown rival would make that path a bit messier, but still not impossible to navigate.

If USC loses to UCLA on Saturday and Colorado wins, the Buffaloes would have the better South Division record at 3-0. But if both lose, USC would own the better divisional record — 3-1 compared to 2-1. Colorado had two games canceled because of other teams’ COVID-19 issues.

There is one scenario that would make for a stranger end to an already bizarre season. If the Pac-12 experiences a rash of cancellations next week — enough for the average number of conference games to be rounded down to four — the Pac-12 championship game would be played between the teams with the highest winning percentage, regardless of division.

That’s how Colorado and USC could find themselves facing off with the Pac-12 title on the line — perhaps the most fitting end to an already strange season.


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