USC adds decreasing depth to its myriad problems

LOS ANGELES (AP) Southern California thought its painful lack of depth was supposed to improve this season after the completion of heavy NCAA sanctions.

Then again, almost nothing has gone anywhere close to plan in this half-season for the struggling Trojans (3-3, 1-2 Pac-12).

Injuries at several key positions are hampering USC’s attempts to survive the merciless barrage of bad news in the program. The offense is getting hit particularly hard, from starting center Max Tuerk’s season-ending knee injury to various nicks on several key skill-position players.

The injuries have left quarterback Cody Kessler likely needing to look at the roster before he goes out to practice with a group of untested receivers this week to prepare for a visit from No. 3 Utah.

”We’ve got a lot of young guys playing in skill positions right now,” Kessler said after Tuesday’s practice. ”We’re dropping numbers pretty fast, so we’ve got to move guys around. But they’re doing a great job, and it’s my job to get them ready, get them prepared and be on the same page with them, because obviously in fall camp, I didn’t work a whole lot with them.”

Key receivers Darreus Rogers and Steven Mitchell Jr. missed Tuesday’s practice. Rogers sat out the second half of last weekend’s loss at Notre Dame with a hamstring injury, while Mitchell missed the game with an ankle injury. Freshman quarterback-turned-receiver Jalen Greene was limited by a hamstring problem, but interim coach Clay Helton thinks he’ll play this weekend.

The Trojans are patching the gaps behind No. 1 receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster as cleverly as possible. Tight end Tyler Petite figured in the passing game more prominently against the Fighting Irish, and even junior-college transfer De’Quan Hampton and walk-on Robby Kolanz caught passes in South Bend.

Back at practice on Tuesday, two-way star Adoree Jackson played exclusively at receiver and freshman tailback Dominic Davis helped out as a receiver in drills.

It’s a patchwork way to prepare to play the Pac-12 South’s dominant team so far this season, but the Trojans have few options.

”It’s kind of like my sophomore year,” Kessler said, referring to his first year as USC’s starting quarterback in the throes of NCAA-mandated scholarship restrictions. ”Looking back at it, we had some games where we didn’t have a whole lot of depth and we didn’t have a whole lot of numbers. It’s still next man up. Next guy has got to step up.”

USC had the longest injury report of its season Tuesday. Left tackle Chad Wheeler sat out with concussion-like symptoms, and his absence Saturday would be another major blow to a line that hasn’t played up to its own expectations this season.

Helton returned from his first head coaching defeat with his usual enthusiasm, even while working his way down that lengthy injury report. He thought the Trojans had ”one of their better practices of the season,” even though it featured a few scraps after plays.

”Everybody wants to get back to the grind, and everybody wants to hit somebody after that loss, so I was expecting that,” linebacker Su’a Cravens said. ”I like playing physical, so I invite it.”