December 6, 2021

Acqua NYC

Fit And Go Forward

USC hits pause on practice again Thursday due to ongoing COVID situation

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A little more than five hours earlier, USC coach Clay Helton had sounded confident — well, at least cautiously optimistic — about the Trojans’ chances of playing their scheduled game with Colorado on Saturday.

“We look like we’re in a very good place right now, and hopefully good Lord willing we’ll stay healthy and safe and can remain moving forward,” he said a little after 8 a.m.

At the point Helton was preparing for a Thursday afternoon practice. Then a little past 1 p.m., USC put out a less optimistic update.

Practice was cancelled for the second time this week as a precaution with another player showing potential COVID-19 symptoms and being tested.

“An update on Saturday’s game will be provided once further testing results are received,” the official statement reads. “USC continues to keep the health and safety of its players, coaches and staff as the utmost priority.”

After avoiding the COVID-19 struggles that have beset other college football programs around the country and getting through the first three weeks of the season unscathed, USC had a single player initially test positive Monday night after making the road trip to Utah last weekend. The Trojans then had one other player test positive and five more also placed in quarantine per contact tracing protocols, but they got clearance Wednesday afternoon to resume practice after taking Tuesday off.

“All staff and players were tested yesterday — that’s where we stand,” Helton had said Thursday morning. “I cannot give you any names due to HIPAA laws, so out of respect please do not ask, and we will be conducting testing, both staff and players again today, and hopefully we get back on the field again this afternoon. …

“We will be practicing this afternoon, and I appreciate the kids’ sacrifice in staying in our bubble here in isolation. We’ll have a nice turkey dinner that we have to isolate and eat alone, but we’re thankful for the opportunity to be on the grass today.”

That was the plan. Now the reality is more uncertainty about whether No. 19 USC (3-0) will host Colorado (2-0) in the Coliseum on Saturday afternoon. The Trojans are one of just four Pac-12 teams along with UCLA, Oregon and Oregon State to play all three weeks so far.

Even Thursday morning, though, Helton acknowledged the ever-tenuous nature of the situation as cancellations and late-week setbacks have been commonplace within the Pac-12 this season and across college football at large.

Before this latest setback, Helton was asked how tense the past few days had been within the program and whether there was ever a point he feared the game with Colorado wouldn’t happen.

“You’re always fearful. I’m still fearful today,” he said. “You don’t have a crystal ball with this thing. You really don’t. You kind of hold your breath — it’s been this way. You hold your breath with each result of the testing, each day, and hopefully, especially as it gets to the end of the week. By the time you hit Friday and Saturday, it’s like, oh my gosh, don’t have one. We’ve been fortunate the first three games, and hopefully this Thursday and Friday going into Saturday of gameday testing, we stay healthy and safe and clean on all the testing, to give us the next opportunity.

“To say there’s not tension each and every day would be false. There is. You want it so bad for the kids. They’ve invested so much and sacrificed so much. It’s like today, they aren’t going to see their families. It’s probably the first time for a lot of them that they’re not going to be with their families, and they’re sacrificing their Thanksgiving to have a chance to go win a championship. Thankful and grateful for that, for those kids. It’s something that, there’s a lot of tension each and every day. It comes with the territory.”

It’s unknown what parts of the USC roster are affected at this point.

Helton would not provide any details in that regard, but he made clear that it includes players from the starting lineup.

“Just out of a competitive disadvantage I’m not going to do that. I will say that there are starters involved and we will have the opportunity, just like any injury, the next man will be up,” he said. “I know that’s an old saying, but it gives opportunity to other guys. We’re very fortunate because of the protocols we have in place as well as I thought a great decision and guidance by everybody to be able to take a step back and really calculate where we were and not rush into anything.”

That’s now what the Trojans will do again while awaiting the fallout from the latest update.

Injury updates

Beyond the seven players in quarantine, USC has some other injury matters that could possibly affect the lineup Saturday as the No. 19 Trojans (3-0) host unbeaten Colorado (2-0).

Helton said starting linebacker Palaie Gaoteote remains in concussion protocol after missing the game last week at Utah, and fellow starting linebacker Ralen Goforth remains limited with a foot sprain.

“We’ll see where Ralen is at. He did not practice yesterday but was on the field, he was feeling a little bit better. We’ll see where he’s at today,” Helton said.

If neither play, that means junior Kana’i Mauga and redshirt sophomore Raymond Scott would be the starting linebackers, with redshirt freshman Tuasivi Nomura the top reserve — and the only other known scholarship linebacker available, unless another player has been moved to the position. Defensive coordinator Todd Orlando was coy when asked about the depth there on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, defensive lineman Caleb Tremblay is on pace to return to action after missing two games with neck stingers.

And running backs Markese Stepp (pectoral strain) and Stephen Carr (unclear the nature of his injury) both look on track to play as well after missing the Utah game (Carr played 1 snap).

“Markese did practice yesterday, looked really good, looked really good. And Stephen as well. I would anticipate, we’ll finish up this week, I wanted to go through an entire week of practice, yesterday was really the first physical day that we’ve had and there was no setback by any kid, so that was extremely positive,” Helton said. “If they can continue to look like they do over the next two days I would anticipate them being available for this game.”

In general, Helton said he asked the team if they were up to the challenge of playing this game despite the key personnel that will be missing due to the COVID situation.

“I said ‘With this group of men we have right here, do we feel confident in the job that we can do?’ And every man was like, ‘Yeah, coach, we got this,'” he said. “We’ve already dealt with adversity within games and the kids have handled it extremely well, and I don’t anticipate them not going out and producing on Saturday. …

“I’m probably more excited for them. They’re guys that are looking for their first opportunities to really make a major contribution, and they’ll be at different positions. I’m more excited than fearful for them because I know they’ve trained for this moment. It’s going to be neat to see those men who step in and the job that they do. Some of them, it will be their first opportunity of this season to make a major contribution. Like I told the team, we’re excited for them. To get guys that made major contributions, it’s your time to step up even more. Put the Superman cape on and be truly special and lift our football team. I think I went around to all of those guys and said, ‘It can’t be good this week, it has to be great. Bring the cape with you and be Superman this week.'”

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