USC tackle Ishmael Sopsher expected to make debut against Notre Dame

USC interim head football coach Donte Williams takes the field with his Trojans squad.
USC interim head football coach Donte Williams takes the field with his Trojans squad against Utah at the Coliseum on Oct. 9.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

When Ishmael Sopsher first left Alabama for USC nearly a year ago, the big-bodied nose tackle was expected to add depth to a thinning Trojan interior.

But compartment syndrome surgery complicated those plans before he’d even taken the field. And while Sopsher sat out for the last six months recovering, the limited depth USC once had was decimated, leaving its defense desperate for big-bodied reinforcements on the interior.

That wait, for USC and its touted transfer nose tackle, may finally be over. After weeks of being brought along slowly, Sopsher is expected to make his debut Saturday against Notre Dame, assuming all goes well the rest of this week.


“Ish has done a really good job,” defensive coordinator Todd Orlando said. “We’ll see his conditioning moving forward, but we want to play him.”

How much he’ll play depends on a number of factors, including how often USC plays its base defense and how he responds in the coming days of practice. But after a 275-pound converted linebacker started at nose tackle for the season’s first six weeks, 60 extra pounds of interior presence could make a major difference for a defense that has struggled at times to stop the run.

Those issues didn’t seem nearly as pressing until the spring. Senior Brandon Pili was expected to man the middle, until an Achilles tear ended his season in April. Freshman Jay Toia stepped up in his place, only to transfer soon after the spring ended.

The UCLA and USC football coaching staffs have leaned on transfers to bolster their rosters with players thrilled for a second chance at the right fit.

That left only redshirt freshman Jamar Sekona and sophomore Stanley Tau’ufo’u on the interior. Combined, the two young tackles had just a single tackle to their name heading into the season.

Sekona appeared to be on the fast track to becoming the starter at nose tackle. But a bout on the COVID-19 list left him on the outside looking in. He has tallied only 71 snaps in six games, while Tau’ufo’u has stepped into the full-time role, in spite of his size disadvantage.

Size shouldn’t be a problem once Sopsher returns. The 6-foot-4, 330-pound nose tackle is among the largest players on USC’s roster. And now, after a long wait, USC might finally be able to put that size to good use.

“Patience is key,” Sopsher said Wednesday. “My parents, they always tell me take it one day at a time and my time gonna come.”