If this were a normal college football season, Clay Helton would have his massive participation spreadsheet primed and ready by now.
Since the NCAA changed its redshirt rules in 2018 to allow players to take part in four games, the spreadsheet has been essential in informing the USC coach which of his players could still play and retain eligibility. But in a year unlike any other, Helton won’t have the same need for that data this season.
With the NCAA offering relief ahead of a shortened conference-only campaign, USC players will retain a year of eligibility regardless of how many of this season’s seven games they play in. For Helton and his staff, that means a brief respite from redshirts.
“I think it's a real advantageous period for not only staffs but players right now,” Helton said. “To make the best out of this, it's really the silver lining in this whole thing. One, the ability to play, but two, the ability to really develop kids and have this year where — gosh almighty, hopefully it will never happen again in my career — but it is something that, the benefit for these kids, you can see how it's helping them."
How it might affect decisions on USC’s rotations remains to be seen, but Helton said he told his assistants this week to not be afraid to use their young players early on.
“You could look up and three guys test positive or false positive [for COVID-19], and the next guy's out there,” Helton said. “So to be able to get some of those experiences and get the jitters out before you may be called upon to be a starter will be helpful.”
With that in mind, USC has offered ample practice work to its fleet of freshmen offensive linemen, many of whom Helton expects to contribute this season. Freshmen Casey Collier and Jonah Monheim have worked at left and right tackle, respectively. Courtland Ford has spent most of his time at right guard, and Andrew Milek has impressed at center.
Just one week out from the start of the Pac-12 season, most of USC’s starting spots have already been settled. The primary exception, Helton said, is along the defensive line, where the Trojans’ young players wouldn’t have been redshirted, regardless of this season’s circumstances.
Defensive tackles Marlon Tuipulotu and Brandon Pili are expected to step into regular roles, but the rest of the line is still up in the air. Freshman Tuli Tuipulotu, Marlon’s brother, has been a standout up front since the start of camp and should play a part this season. Others like Caleb Tremblay, Nick Figueroa and Connor Murphy are expected to play major snaps early on.
“We have the depth,” Helton said, “but there’s going to be a lot of men walking into that battlefield for the first time, and how do they react to it? That’s going to be the biggest thing. I think we’ll have to play some guys to kind of get a feel for who’s ready for it, and who’s not.”
But without redshirts to worry about, Helton will have an entire season to feel out that rotation.
After months spent recovering from an ankle injury, Markese Stepp had to work through another injury.
Helton said that Stepp suffered a minor mid-foot sprain early in camp that kept him out of action until this week. But the redshirt sophomore running back “looked phenomenal the last two days and really has gained confidence,” Helton said.
USC seems determined to work Stepp back slowly, which could mean a limited role to start in the backfield rotation. Senior Vavae Malepeai has also been limited by a hamstring injury and just started doing individual drills this week.
Stephen Carr will likely open the season in a significant role. But Stepp seems sure to factor in sooner rather than later, health permitting.
“He's a rare commodity at 230 pounds with his athleticism, explosiveness and just physicality,” Helton said of Stepp. “He's a different back than the others.”
Edge rusher Drake Jackson and inside linebacker Kana’i Mauga, both of whom were suffering from hamstring injuries, returned to practice, Helton said. … Freshman receiver and returner Gary Bryant Jr. is expected to return to practice next week. … USC will head to the Coliseum on Saturday for its final scrimmage ahead of the Nov. 7 season opener against Arizona State.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.