Going into Saturday’s game against Alabama, Porter Gustin knew he was going to have a tough task. Not only was there the potential matchup with first round candidate left tackle Cam Robinson, but Gustin was going to have to play a lot.
Gustin didn’t leave the field defensively. He played every defensive snap and tied for the team lead with nine tackles, including one sack.
“I had an idea that that was probably going to happen,” Gustin said. “I’m great with it. First game, you're a little out of shape. As hard as we practice, game environment is a little bit different and you're running all the way to the ball on every snap, so you get a little out of shape. As the season goes on, that should not be a problem.”
He was also scheduled to be a big special teams participant for USC, but fullback Reuben Peters subbed in for him on the punt coverage team while Gustin was getting a cut on his hand bandaged up and Gustin deferred to Peters, telling him to take those snaps the rest of the game. Gustin and a couple of other starters were also replaced by backups on the kickoff return unit after Alabama opened up a big lead.
In total, Gustin played 69 plays, one of the top numbers on the team.
Don Hill, Gustin’s primary backup at the Predator outside linebacker position, was sent home by USC on Friday for a violation of team rules in connection with the Osa Masina sexual assault investigation. Veteran SAM outside linebacker Jabari Ruffin might have been a substitution option, but he was ejected from the game in the second quarter for a flagrant personal foul. That left a pair of true freshmen, Connor Murphy and Oluwole Betiku, as the only backup outside linebackers.
“It was definitely an impact. I mean we hate to see a guy go home like that,” Gustin said of Hill’s suspension, which will continue this week against Utah State. “It would be nice to have Don, who has a little bit more experience. I mean he knows football a little bit better at this level. That would be nice, but I think the freshmen will do well.
“They've improved a lot. I think, especially in the last couple of weeks, they've really took some big steps forward. I'd be comfortable with them going in.”
Murphy got in the Alabama game on special teams, but the coaches weren’t comfortable enough to put either of the freshmen in on defense.
Despite the heavy workload, Gustin recorded three of his tackles, including his sack, in a four-play sequence on the Crimson Tide’s final drive of the game. But it was the plays he didn’t make that nagged at him after the game. At the Predator position, it is Gustin’s job to hold the edge and force everything back inside to the other defenders, but Alabama was able to break containment and get outside a handful of times.
“I think I played assignment well,” Gustin said. “I missed some big plays, some tackles I should have made. I mean it was very average. It was good to go up against a good o-line like that.
“I was fighting the whole game. I think the defense was as well. I think we just had too many mistakes and they got too much on a roll.”
The mistakes that bothered Gustin were his missed tackles. Crimson Tide freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts was able to shake Gustin in the backfield on a couple of occasions, turning potential tackles for loss into gains.
“You've just got to focus on breaking down when you get to him. I got a little excited you know getting the sack there that I thought I was going to get. I just didn't break down, widen my base at all, so he was able to do that, pull that move and get away from me.
“I just got to really focus down on that, especially when I get that situation where someone does go outside and I'm running at them full speed. I just got to just learn to break down.”
Head coach Clay Helton gave a more glowing review of Gustin’s play:
“I thought he did a tremendous job last week of what we call surfing — being able to hang in there for the zone-read, be able to be right in perfect position to stop the inside run, but be able to run down the quarterback, if needed. With Porter's speed and power, he was able to do that I thought against a good quarterback last week.”
Gustin could get a quick chance at redemption this weekend against Utah State. The Aggies feature a rushing attack that uses a lot of shotgun read-option runs where Gustin could end up matched up one on one with quarterback Kent Myers or running back Devante Mays.
“He's going to need to do it again this week,” Helton said. “This is an electric duo between the quarterback and the running back. Very two talented two players.”
“I like having that responsibility. Last Saturday, they got away from me, so that motivates me, so I'm definitely looking forward to correcting that on Saturday. I think it will be great.”
Utah State presents a personal game for the Salem Hills, Utah native. Before Gustin’s stock blew up and he became a national recruit, the Aggies were the first school to offer him a scholarship when he was a junior. Utah State fourth-year head coach Matt Wells is very familiar with him.
“He plays unbelievably hard and gives a fanatical effort,” Wells told The Salt Lake Tribune this week. “He turns and chases the ball down the line, he knows angles, he can rush the passer and he's long."
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