With just a handful of games remaining in his college career, USC redshirt senior linebacker Lamar Dawson once again came off the field with an injury. Dawson suffered a season-ending shoulder injury on the final first quarter play of the Colorado game, marking the third season in a row he will be unable to finish the year healthy.
It was a tough blow for a middle linebacking corps that had relied on Dawson’s ability to cover sideline-to-sideline with his lateral movement, particularly in passing situations.
But then less than a quarter later, one of the Trojans’ strongest positions of depth became one of their weakest when starting middle linebacker Cameron Smith, who was on pace to become the first true freshman to ever lead USC in tackles, injured his knee doing what he does, making a tackle. Smith came out for the end of the final first half drive, but returned in the second half. He played 18 plays after the injury before finally having to leave the game for good.
He walked off without much of a limp, but after some swelling made it evident something was amiss, an MRI concluded Smith had torn his anterior cruciate ligament and would need season-ending surgery. The Trojans’ interior combination of a surefire Freshman All-American and a veteran senior playmaker was no more.
USC had only used four inside linebackers in its regular rotation and the other two were both at the weakside WILL position rather than the MIKE position Smith and Dawson both played in the middle. In Boulder, the coaching staff used senior Anthony Sarao to lock down the WILL spot and turned to sophomore Olajuwon Tucker to fill in the plays when Smith wasn’t on the field in the second half.
That was merely a stop-gap solution. So what does the USC coaching staff have planned for this week when the linebackers will have a huge challenge trying to stop the misdirection and multiple looks of Oregon?
“Fortunately, you know we do have depth at the position and we've had a next man up mentality,” interim head coach Clay Helton said. “That's how we've had to survive. We’ve had a number of injuries throughout our team. This is just another one we're gonna have to deal with. We don't make excuses. We find the answers.”
The answer appears to be all hands on deck.
USC is turning to a group of five linebackers to try to fill the void. Along with Sarao and Tucker, sophomore Uchenna Nwosu has moved over from his outside SAM linebacker position. Junior Michael Hutchings and freshman Osa Masina could also earn additional reps. Hutchings got in on a goal line grouping against Colorado for his first defensive action since the Idaho game early in the season while Masina played a lot earlier in the year, but has seen limited reps in the last month.
"Next man up mentality,” Nwosu said. “You know we feel sorry for our brothers, but everybody is ready to step up and compete.”
“It’s just part of this game,” defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said. “We’re excited about those guys getting an opportunity to play some more snaps. We’ve obviously moved a couple of guys around, but that’s just part of this game. Man down. Man up.”
Helton said all five players will be given ample chances to prove themselves during the practice week. Then the coaching triumvirate of Helton, Wilcox and linebackers coach Peter Sirmon will sit down together to determine the two-deep rotation.
"“[We’re] going through the week to see what is the best fit for us from a first-team standpoint and then who’s going to be the next two up.”
During Tuesday and Wednesday practices, USC mixed the groupings to see who pairs well together. You can expect Sarao to be a primary asset. Not only is he the most experienced of the bunch, having been a two-year starter, but Wilcox said on Wednesday that they like to pair younger players with veterans at certain positions to help limit communication issues. That’s part of the reason that Sarao and Smith had played together a lot and Dawson and Masina had been another frequently used combination.
Sarao and Masina haven’t played together at any point this year, but it is a definite possibility going forward. Sarao has been practicing at both the MIKE and WILL positions, which are basically the same in Wilcox’s base 3-4 defensive scheme.
“They are both inside linebackers, so they’ve got to know essentially both sides of the defense,” Wilcox said.
With the tempo of spread offenses, particularly the Oregon attack they will face this weekend, USC doesn’t huddle up between plays and get a play call passed on by the middle linebacker. Instead, everyone turns to the sideline and receives the call individually and then lines up from the signs that are relayed in.
“Everybody knows what they’re doing,” Uchenna Nwosu said. “But if there’s any confusion, the MIKE is usually the one that handles it.”
Nwosu is a player that has stood out on special teams and in his limited opportunities backing up Su’a Cravens at the SAM linebacker spot. The coaches have moved him around, starting him at RUSH end for the Arizona game and are hoping he can make the quick transition to the interior because of his size and ability to chase down ball carriers.
"He's such a tremendous athlete,” Helton said on the Trojans Live radio show. “He his unique body type because he has the athleticism to be out on the edge, but he also has the size to play the interior linebacker position and he brings such athleticism to the table.
"He’s a real physical guy,” Wilcox added. “He gets off of blocks. He’s got good instincts. I think he gets better, you see him, the more he plays, get better really every week, so that’s encouraging.”
For his part, Nwosu is looking forward to the challenge of trying to learn the inside linebacker spots. The hardest part has been getting used to what keys to read on each play. With as many formations, motions and misdirection clouds of smoke, Oregon tries to use, focusing on the correct keys can be the difference between a tackle for a loss and a touchdown. It’s something that Tucker and Sarao said is a big focus this week — maintaining eye discipline.
“They’re good at what they do,” Anthony Sarao said. “They don’t really do too much. It’s just they do it out of different formations. They like to hide stuff. They are running the same stuff, but they’re hiding it.”
Masina is another athletic young buck that the Trojans need to take a step forward in a big situation. He wasn’t part of the linebacker rotation against Colorado or Cal two weeks prior and he has seen only 22 defensive snaps in the last month. But Helton expects him to have an extended role this week.
“He’s been a tremendous special teams player for us as he’s learning the linebacker position,” Helton said. “We’ve had some nice depth there and now with the injuries, it’s time for some young people to step up and he’s one of those people that will be counted on in this game.
“Osa [Masina] has tremendous athleticism. He’s really picking up the system at a nice pace. I believe he’s becoming comfortable. Hopefully, that will translate to a great game for him on Saturday. He’s going to be out there playing. There’s no question. He’s going to have to help us this game.”
Facing off against dual-threat quarterback Vernon Adams Jr., running back Royce Freeman and the rest of the Ducks’ offensive weapons, the Trojans will need the entire group to step up.
The full rotations won’t be known until the game plays out, but the competition seems to be bringing the best out of each of the linebackers. Tucker is trying to build on his career-high four tackles last week. Sarao is trying to punctuate his USC career with a strong finish. Nwosu is trying to show he can be a beast at multiple positions. And Hutchings and Masina are trying to show their value going forward.
Four of the five will get significant reps and all five could see action, but how well the group performs as a whole could very well determine the Trojans’ fate in Eugene.