When the USC Trojans debuted at No. 1 in last year’s preseason polls following a 10-2 finish in 2011, many wondered if USC had found a way to beat the NCAA‘s crippling sanctions. Not so fast. After a dismal 2012, the Trojans reinstated tackling drills for the first time in the Lane Kiffin era, and they’ve paid the price, losing player after player to injury.
When the Trojans don’t tackle in practice, they don’t tackle in games, but without depth on the roster, they haven’t been willing to risk many injuries. It’s a college football Catch-22 — and it proves the NCAA’s harsh punishments are having the intended effect.
The injury total is up to 22, not including players like quarterback Max Wittek and defensive end J.R. Tavai, who have already returned following injuries earlier this spring.
Freshman safety Su’a Cravens, a five-star early enrollee expected to compete for a starting role, is the latest victim. Kiffin announced he will miss the rest of spring to have surgery for a torn meniscus, the same injury that sidelined senior tailback Silas Redd.
Knee injuries have, unfortunately, been a common ailment among the Trojans this season. Wittek and star receiver Marqise Lee went down with knee injuries on the same day; Wittek returned last week, and Lee was back on the field for Saturday’s scrimmage, with 10 catches for 191 yards and two touchdowns.
Running back Tre Madden has worked out but has not been cleared for contact following his knee injury last offseason, and junior linebacker Dion Bailey will be out until the fall following offseason shoulder surgery. Tight end Xavier Grimble is out for the remainder of spring with a chest fracture, and fullback Soma Vainuku and offensive lineman Chad Wheeler are also done for the spring.
The secondary, one of the team’s weakest units in the last few seasons, hasn’t gotten much of a chance to find new leaders or get into a rhythm this spring with so many players rotating in and out with injuries. In addition to Cravens and Harris, cornerbacks Kevon Seymour and Devian Shelton have both missed time with ankle injuries, safety Demetrius Wright is out with an unspecified injury, and safety Gerald Bowman hasn’t been playing since offseason leg surgery.
Kiffin acknowledged that the injuries have had an impact on the team this spring, but he’s maintained an aggressive approach. Last week, the team went through the violent, hard-hitting Oklahoma drill for the first time since he’s been the head coach. The players loved it, but Kiffin knows the team can’t practice with that intensity level once games start.
“I don’t think there’s any way we could keep doing this if this was the season. I don’t know how we’d play a game,” Kiffin said after Thursday’s practice, which brought the injury total to 22.
After shying away from too much tackling the last few seasons precisely to avoid injury concerns like the Trojans have faced this spring, the coach was adamant that the new, tougher philosophy would carry over into the beginning of fall camp.
“Anytime that you have a season like you did last year, you can’t do the same thing,” Kiffin said.
He’s already tried to protect his players from injuries during practice, which resulted in poor play and losses when it was game time. Now, his only choice is to hit hard and hope everyone stays healthy and makes their tackles.
Either way, the roster limits have an effect on the Trojans’ ability to practice the way they should in order to play at the highest level during the season — and that’s exactly what the NCAA had in mind when it announced the scholarship reductions.
The USC athletic department has said for a few years that of all the penalties, the lost scholarships would hurt the most, and the players are certainly feeling it now.