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The first major injury setback of spring football came Tuesday for USC, and it came at an already thin spot as redshirt sophomore nickel Max Williams tore his left ACL for the second time and will now miss the season.

Williams was an emerging player in the Trojans defense and figured to push incumbent starting nickel Greg Johnson, who is missing this spring recovering from offseason knee surgery.

Johnson is expected back full-go for preseason camp, but in the meantime, the Trojans have 10 spring practices left and are now down their two primary players at that position.

Coach Clay Helton offered an interesting name as one of the replacements the staff will be looking at the rest of this month — two-year starting safety Isaiah Pola-Mao.

“Two kids that we’ve identified that we’re going to look over the next couple weeks, one is Isaiah Pola-Mao, who brings great athleticism in man coverage. He’s always been a tremendous box player for us. If you remember the Stanford game, how well he was down at the line of scrimmage, as well as his ability to rush off the edge,” Helton said Saturday morning. “We also looked at BAM, who you’ll see out there — Briton Allen — who also brings those same intangibles. When you think about that position and you think about Max and Greg, the first thing they brought was coverage skills, then physicality to the flat zone, then pass-rushing ability. We feel that Zay and Bam bring that for us too.”

USC is scrimmaging Saturday morning on the practice field and that will be one of the areas of interest — not only in watching that nickel spot, which is an important role in the Trojans’ base defense, but also for what Pola-Mao moving off his usual spot will mean for the main safety positions.

To this point, Pola-Mao and redshirt junior Chase Williams have been the first-team safeties. This would presumably give even more opportunity to Texas transfer Xavion Alford, who has worked with the second unit, as well as the three freshman early enrollees — Calen Bullock, Anthony Beavers and Xamarion Gordon.

With Johnson due back for fall camp, it seems likely that Pola-Mao will eventually settle back into his familiar safety role, but it doesn’t hurt to try some different looks in the spring.

“We have four young safeties that are back there also and it’s going to give them more of an opportunity to grow,” Helton said. “Isaiah’s been in the system, he understands it and it just helps him grow also and puts some tools in his toolbox by being so versatile.”

Helton talked about each of those players Saturday morning and what he’s seen from them so far this spring …

Chase Williams: “I’ve really enjoyed watching Chase play right now. He’s acting like a veteran, a multi-year kid, which he is, and you can tell what the strength and conditioning program has done for him. His body has changed and his physicality has changed, but also how fast he is playing. I know you all weren’t here Thursday, but he made a very veteran play in the run game on Thursday that really stood out to me and looked as fast and confident as I’ve seen him since he’s been here. So to have a kid who has played in games, that has that confidence, that has that experience obviously, it helps you a lot sleep at night as a head coach.”

Xavion Alford: “You can just tell Xavion’s been in college football for a year, from his body to how he plays, the plays he’s making, we’re so inexperienced you can’t put a value on that. And so to have a year under your belt as a college football player, you can see that shine through.”

Calen Bullock: “Calen made two great interceptions in Thursday’s practice and really stood out. … I really think Calen is extremely rangy, has great ball skills, obviously is trying to put on some strength and weight, which will come, but I like his football instinctiveness, I really do.”

Anthony Beavers: “Anthony, really what jumps out to me is his physicality. He has safety athleticism but plays the game physical like a linebacker. I love the way he plays the game and the physicality he brings to the table. I think he’s going to be a guy who can roll down in the box and truly add to the box with a linebacker mentality, safety athleticism.”

Xamarion Gordon: “Xamarion, I’ve been just ultra-impressed with from day one. You saw some unbelievable things that he did in high school, but his maturity on how he prepares has been like a pro to me. Just the way he handles strength and conditioning workouts, the way he’s picked up the playbook probably faster than any of the young guys, to be honest with you. He’s got great football smarts and I think has a really bright future here.”

It’s a position we’ll be paying especially close attention to the rest of the spring. Williams has played in 20 games with six starts over his USC career, so he definitely has the edge on experience, but he’s been inconsistent in those opportunities, so this would seem a prime opportunity for Alford — who was recruited to Texas initially by USC safeties coach Craig Naivar — to make the most of his first-team reps and see if that can become more of a competition that it’s seemed so far with the static depth chart.

Helton commented for the first time on the ACL injury that will knock Max Williams out for the next 9-12 months — in the same left knee as the ACL injury he sustained his senior year of high school.

“Just gut-wrenching for Max. All our souls hurt,” Helton said. “You’re talking about a pro’s pro and an unbelievable teammate. And one of the more mentally tough kids that I’ve ever been around in my 26 years. He’s been through this once. I know that his mental toughness will shine again and he’ll be back out there. But I think it was hard on all of us, especially Max, to see how hard he was worked, how productive he was for our team last year and then to lose him. …

“I know he’ll be back for the ’22 season. I will say he’s one of the fastest healers I have ever seen in my life. I remember him having the injury in high school that senior year and how hard he worked and how fast that he got ready and the things that he was doing were incredible to me — fastest timeline that I had ever seen as far as a young man and how hard he worked to be ready for that next season. For us, this is a long-term investment in Max’s ability to play and his health, so we won’t rush it. We know it’s going to be a year’s time to be able to get him fully back right.”

Williams addressed the injury on Twitter on Friday with several teammates and coaches chiming in words of support.

Helton had said prior to the start of spring that several players would be out early due to “health protocols,” which has become familiar language in these COVID times.

Most of the players that pertained to are expected to be active for the scrimmage Saturday. Outside linebacker Drake Jackson, linebacker Ralen Goforth and linebacker Tuasivi Nomura were back in uniform Tuesday at the last practice open to media, but they were not able to put on pads until completing the NCAA-required acclimation process.

Cornerback Chris Steele was not seen on the practice field Tuesday, but Helton said he and the aforementioned guys will be clear to compete Saturday in the scrimmage. He also noted that tight end Jude Wolfe would be back, though Wolfe is expected to be out most of spring recovering from foot surgery.

“They’ve completed their two days of acclimation with helmets and have looked really good. You’ll see them in full pads today. Looking forward to having them back,” Helton said.

The other big name in that group of notable absences early this spring has been wide receiver Bru McCoy. Helton said he is expected back by the first of the week.

In regard to other injuries so far this spring, Helton said veteran tight end Josh Falo sustained only a bone bruise last Saturday when he had to be helped off the field with what looked like a potentially serious injury.

“Nothing structurally damaging, will just take a week or so for that to be healed up and once that discomfort is gone and he’s medically cleared he’ll be back. We’ll see if that’s prior to the end of camp, I’m hoping so,” Helton said.

Defensive lineman Jake Lichtenstein had “a little back spasm” that has already subsided and he is expected to be active the rest of spring.

And defensive tackle Kobe Pepe has an unspecified shoulder injury.

“We’re trying to rehab it and get him back as soon as possible,” Helton said.

It sounds like the scrimmage Saturday, which will be held on the practice fields and not in the Coliseum, will be very situational-based.

“It’s kind of our first test of where we are. We’re going to be in some scrimmage situations today, working open field, working some third-down competition, some high and tight red zone, and putting our guys in live situations to see how they react with now five days of installation,” Helton said. “It’s going to be a lot of fun. It should be a fast and physical practice that our kids are excited about. Practices have been ultra competitive, which I’ve enjoyed, and the kids juices and passion are running right now. Which is a lot of fun. I look forward to today, beautiful day, Saturday on grass. What better thing to do than go out there and play the game you love.”

USC is just a week away from its spring showcase game, and Helton said there are two main points of emphasis he wants to work on between now and then.

“Today, we’re going to put the ball down and have really a third-down competition. We want to be able to improve our defensive numbers from last year, with the ability to get off the field. We made so many strides, but one of the areas I know myself and TO (Todd Orlando) want to grow in is our third-down efficiency, so we’re going to really concentrate on that today,” he reiterated. “And Tuesday, the point of emphasis will be our third-and-short offensively and working our third-and-short and goal line packages as well as four-minute run packages, which we would like to improve. So that will be the point of emphasis early next week, Tuesday and Thursday, going into that Saturday spring showcase. Those are two areas that I’m looking forward to seeing.”

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