Clay Helton expects USC ‘to be in a good spot come Sunday’ roster-wise

USC football coach Clay Helton wouldn’t specify how many of the Trojans’ affected players — four who tested positive for COVID-19 last week and seven more who were quarantined through the contact tracing protocols — would be available Sunday against Washington State.

But he projected optimism that his team would be close enough to full strength to head into that game.

“Obviously, I can provide you the exact number once all the testing [is done this week] because they’ve still got to go through. So I can’t give you a definite number, but I will say this, it’s an adequate enough number to be able to play ball,” Helton said. “… We feel like we’re going to be in a good spot come Sunday.”

It was reported by Jon Wilner, of the Bay Area News Group, and others that USC had to cancel its game last week against Colorado due to not meeting the Pac-12 threshold of having at least seven offensive linemen available.

Los Angeles County requires a 10-day isolation for a player who tests positive and a 14-day quarantine for those flagged through the contact tracing process. USC reported that it learned of the first positive case last Monday, then announced Wednesday that a second player had tested positive and five others had been quarantined due to contact tracing. What’s not clear is when that quarantine officially started — or more to the point when the 14-day clock started ticking.

The Trojans did not practice that Tuesday before being cleared to practice Wednesday, but even if the contact tracing began that Monday or Tuesday those five players would conceivably not clear the 14-day window by game day this week … unless they are able to pinpoint the origin of the outbreak and set the clock retroactive to the weekend of the Utah game.

USC then shut down all in-person operations again Thursday and would announce later that a third player had shown symptoms that Thursday and later tested positive, two others players were subsequently identified as high-risk contacts and quarantined and then a fourth player tested positive on Friday.

So how many of those affected players might be available requires some guesswork without knowing the true start of the isolation/quarantine processes.

Helton didn’t reference the offensive line specifically, only to say that the obstacle that led to the cancellation of the Colorado game should be cleared in time to host Washington State in the Coliseum on Sunday (after moving the game back from Friday night).

“We actually get players back this week and Washington State does, too. That’s the reason we’re moving the game back. It gives us the opportunity by moving the game from Friday to Sunday, it allows us to garner the adequate number of players that we need at a certain position to be able to play this game,” Helton said. “Coach [Nick] Rolovich and I talk every day, just like I did with coach [Karl] Dorrell last week to just get updates on both teams and where we stand. And we’re very thankful not only to the league but both universities for moving this game back to Sunday because it does give us the amount of bodies that we need at a certain position to be able to make this happen.”

Helton said USC would resume light workouts Tuesday and then return to full-pad practice Wednesday. With the game on Sunday, that aligns with the Trojans’ normal schedule for a week.

“With yesterday’s test results and being all negative player-wise and through the guidance of our medical professionals, we are going to begin the opportunity to resume workouts today,” he said. “Obviously, we have been off seven of the last nine days since Utah with seven days of no physical contact as far as being able to get on-field engagement and drill work together. So this is gonna be basically a strength and conditioning day for us as well as some light field work, getting back into non-contact light field work. Basically get them back into football shape and being able to move them around a little bit.”

Again, as it remains vague as to how many of USC’s starting offensive linemen will be available Sunday, Helton seemed to acknowledge the possibility for some of the Trojans’ young, untested backups to be needed.

“Like I said last week, I was really excited to see some of these young kids get the chance to really make a major contribution. And we’re gonna have to see as we go through the week. You know, we’ll be prepping some young kids during the week because our anticipation is we won’t get some of the veteran players back until later this week so they’re gonna get the reps based on how they’re handling things and where we’re at at the end of the week. But you can anticipate a young kid or two having to be in there,” he said. “But what an exciting time for them. That’s why you come to ‘SC is to have the opportunity to compete and play early.”

He added that the players who are quarantining due to contact tracing have been able to do some activity on their own to stay in shape.

“We’ve worked with our medical professionals. Obviously, we can’t do anything with the guys who have positive cases. But we’ve worked with our medical professionals on a plan that’s allowed our guys to stay in shape and stay conditioned. We’re functioning in that plan right now. We get the opportunity to hopefully get those guys back,” he said. “Obviously, there’s a lot of testing to go. I mean, every day — sometimes, it’s one time, sometimes it’s twice. We’re anticipating, if everything trends the way it’s going, which is a good direction, that we’ll have the adequate number to play the game.”

Junior linebacker Palaie Gaoteote still remains in the concussion protocol, which kept him out of the Utah game as he’s now entering his third week in that status.

“Every concussion is different. The one thing we don’t ever mess around with is the mind and the brain. Sometimes, it’s shorter and sometimes it’s longer. I think this is Day 17 or 18, postgame. Sometimes they take up to 21 days. Sometimes longer,” Helton said. “We have a systematic approach that medical professionals — it’s not a coach, a trainer — it’s literally a systematic approach with neurologists and doctors, who have to clear him. …

“We’re never going to mess around. If it takes days, weeks, whatever it is, we’re not playing around with that. I know he’s improving. He’s had much improvement from Day 1 to where he is now, but you have to get rid of symptoms. You have to exert, and you have to do a physical exertion test. And then a computer test. Then be approved by our doctors to be medically cleared. There’s a protocol to it, and we’re following that protocol. It is what it is. However many days it takes where he gets cleared and confident, that’s what we’ll do.”

Fellow starting linebacker Ralen Goforth, meanwhile, is still working through a foot sprain.

“We are going to test him today. He is feeling a lot better. We’re gonna put him in some change of direction drills today and see where he’s at. So I’ll be able to give you more information on that later in the week,” Helton said.

Helton was asked how last Thursday unfolded for him, from his sharing cautious optimism with reporters that morning to later that day having the Colorado game cancelled.

“You always are in a position that each day you’re hoping and praying you get great test results. After we had the positive test coming back from Utah and the contact tracing, you’re like, OK, hopefully we’ve limited this number, hopefully we don’t have any more positive tests from our players. And all of a sudden you look up and you have another positive that shut that game down. And you’ve worked so hard — you already put a Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, you’ve put four days of just grinding and working investment to all of a sudden be on a Thursday to have to go tell your team, ‘Guys, I’m sorry, we’re not going to get this opportunity.’ And it’s gut-wrenching,” he said.

“We’ve taken the approach that every day on the grass is a gift. I can’t wait to get on this grass today with the kids. That’s the way we’ve approached it, and when it’s taken away from you it’s gut-wrenching because you know you’ve lost the opportunity. And we knew, that game was so important for both universities and [we] were so excited — two undefeated teams — not only for the season, but in the Pac-12 South, the significance of that game for the Pac-12 South championship on national TV, day game on grass in the Coliseum. It was something that each and every kid looked forward to, and our staff. Yeah, it was a body blow, but man, I’m so appreciative to our kids for what they immediately, when we said, hey guys, Thursday, ‘We’re going to need to take Thursday-Friday-Saturday-Sunday and Monday and retest on the PCR tests Friday and Monday and see where we’re at and I need your discipline, I need you to isolate, I need you to protect us and the team,’ for them to be able to be in that position, oh my gosh, that’s been absolutely awesome that we get back on the grass today. So I appreciate their discipline and what they’ve done.”

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