It’s never good when the injury bug comes around, but when a team is operating with reduced roster numbers like the USC Trojans, the effects can be even more devastating.
When the NCAA handed USC three seasons of scholarship reductions as part of the sanctions stemming from the Reggie Bush investigation, head coach Lane Kiffin tried to play it safe and preserve the players he had by avoiding tackling drills in practice. No tackling in practice led, predictably, to no tackling in games — and several late game collapses in Kiffin’s first year.
After the defense hit historic lows in 2012 by giving up all-time highs in yards and points, Kiffin made some changes, including a return to tackling in practice. Injuries mounted during spring workouts, but the head coach stuck to his plan to practice — and hopefully play — much more physically in 2013.
The hard-hitting practices might have energized the players, who seemed to sleepwalk through parts of 2012, but the hits took a toll and the injuries began to add up.
At times during USC’s fall camp, the Trojans had more than twenty players held out because of injuries. Just as Kiffin noted that the team was slowly recovering, more players went out.
The most notable injury of the fall, and the scariest for Trojans fans, was Marqise Lee‘s injured shoulder. An MRI quickly revealed it wasn’t serious, but he left USC’s final preseason scrimmage after “re-aggravating” it, though he told reporters later that had it been a real game, he would’ve stayed on the field.
Lee and sophomore receiver Nelson Agholor, who also missed some time this fall, are expected to be ready when the Trojans travel to Hawai’i next week for the opener, but there are big question marks at other positions.
Running back is a major area of concern, as senior Silas Redd and junior D.J. Morgan, the only returners, have both missed significant time this offseason. Redd, the team’s leading rusher in 2012 after transferring from Penn State, had knee surgery after he was injured during a spring practice and is not yet back to full strength.
The tailbacks aren’t the only ones coping with the effects of tackling in practice; the linemen blocking for them have also had their share of bumps, bruises and worse. Aundrey Walker, last year’s starting left tackle, has been out with concussion and knee issues this fall, while center Marcus Martin returned for the final scrimmage after sitting out with his own knee injury.
All three tight ends have assorted injuries, forcing USC to use a defensive end, backup quarterback, and walk-on in the final preseason scrimmage, at a position where the team would otherwise be considered deeper than most.
The biggest concern on the other side of the ball might be safety/linebacker Dion Bailey, who suffered a hip injury last week. He was on crutches and is officially “day-to-day,” but he assured reporters he would be back in time for the Trojans’ first game. Bailey, a mainstay of the USC defense for two seasons, would be a big loss, especially if his hip problem becomes a nagging injury.
Because the team is already so depleted just a week before the season opener, there was no tackling during the Trojans’ final fall scrimmage, but with so many starters still out with injuries, was it too little, too late?