It's going to have to become a Trojan theme for the rest of what still can be a special season. Like "Fight On."
Next man up.
Clay Helton has been doing just that.
Then along came center Khaliel Rodgers, described by Helton as USC's No. 2 star of the Trojans' 42-24 thumping of the then No. 3 and unbeaten Utah Utes Saturday after freshman Cameron Smith's three interceptions.
No big deal, Rodgers said. So what if USC's third center, a 6-foot-3, 305-pounder from New Castle, Del. had been shifted to guard last week and hadn't snapped the ball in a while. So what if he had to jump in on the fly when Toa Lobendahn went down with a season-ending ACL early in the Utah game just two weeks after All-American Max Tuerk had ended his season with a similar injury.
"I had no doubts," USC's "next man up" said of his ability to make that leap. He talked of the "trust" he had in Cody Kessler and the "trust" Cody had in him.
"Khaliel went in and played amazing," Cody said, "like he was the starter all year," Cody said. "Those guys don't blink. They go in and are physical."
Notice the plural: "those guys." It's both descriptive and prophetic. With 15 true freshmen already stepping up, USC is among the top three teams in playing first-year guys who had had to step up already.
Give Steve Sarkisian much of the credit here. Pete Carroll may have been ahead of the curve with Mike Williams 13 seasons back but Sark made it work for the young guys in big numbers. And did so not to validate his recruiting but because the young guys deserved it. That will make the rest of this season easier for all of them.
But as the injuries mount, with four wide receivers missing going into the Utah game and tight ends Taylor McNamara and Tyler Petite injured coming out of it, there will be lots of chances to "next man up."
But not just there. There are injuries at running back [Tre Madden], safety [Marvell Tell] and D-line [Rasheem Green]. How many can come back for Cal (12 noon, Fox) at Berkeley we should have an idea by Tuesday.
But one thing we do know if USC is to run the table and have the kind of storybook finish USC fans can only fantasize about right now, there's going to have to be a whole lot of "next manning up."
Note that our list doesn't include players who have already made their debuts, many who have been starters, but could get more calls now because of a change in scheme, change in personnel, all sorts of circumstances.
We're talking about the likes of Leon McQuay III, who returned to the scene with a strong game against Utah. Or how about Jahleel Pinner and Soma Vainuku now that power running and lead blocking is back in the attack. Or freshman WR Deontay Burnett, DB Isaiah Langley and D-lineman Rasheem Green, all of whom have had their moments.
We of course start with Rodgers in our top 11 list of players who will have to be there for the Trojans.
C Khaliel Rodgers:
Perfect example of why this USC program signed 55 Top 100, five-star and four-star prospects the last five years. By comparison, Utah signed just seven. The four-star Rodgers was one of those signees. And somehow got lost a little in the shuffle -- and after an injury or two. But the redshirt sophomore was ready when his time came. A technically proficient snapper, both in the shotgun and with the QB under the center, he was pretty much flawless on the fly. And a perfect example about what has to happen.
TE Connor Spears:
The 6-foot-6, 255-pound redshirt sophomore from South Dakota by way of Columbia made waves in the spring and summer and may well get his chance again this week after battling a nagging knee injury himself the last two weeks.
S Matt Lopes:
The next "next man up" Saturday was solid redshirt sophomore Lopes who stepped in after Tell broke his collarbone with a couple of tackles and did what he always does -- played tough, smart and physical football.
D-L Noah Jefferson:Just watching the 330-pound freshman cut down Ute Brittain Covey in the open field after a 40-yard return tells you all you need to know about where he's going with this team -- maybe this year.
WR De'Quan Hampton:Just one play -- that 29-yard sideline grab that the 6-foot-4 JC transfer made look so easy against Utah -- says that now may be the moment DQH moves in and makes it happen.
WR/RB Dominic Davis:The freshman speedster has given us glimpses of his ability to beat defenses every time USC has gone to him. Hard to imagine the Trojans don't call his number more now. He's clearly ready after five touches for 26 yards against Utah.
WR Jalen Greene:Much like with Davis, it's hard to see how the physical and multi-talented Green doesn't get his number called more from here on out with a WR pass at least once a game.
OL Chris Brown:He got his chance for extended work Saturday and the 303-pound redshirt freshman with the reshaped body acquitted himself well. With two, and depending on Chad Wheeler's concussion comeback this week, three starters possibly gone, look for Brown's No. 77 out there more and more.
OL Nico Falah:The good news with Nico is that he's worked on the center-quarterback exchange so it's not entirely new for the 285-pound redshirt sophomore guard. He'll get his chance to show what he can do this week.
C Cole Smith:This could be the week for the 280-pound true freshman from Mission Viejo to toss off his redshirt after it looked like he was being given a year to grow into a Pac-12-center-sized body. He may not have the time to wait. This week, he and Falah get the work to see who will back up Rodgers.
DB Ykili Ross:There was some thought earlier in the season that the talented 6-foot-2, 185-pounder who can play on both sides of the ball would drop his redshirt as well. He worked in as a backup in practice when the numbers went down and it's hard not to see him in play here, especially with the week-to-week decisions on Adoree' Jackson.
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