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Trojans Need Kiss of Depth

Injuries to Tatupu and Justice against Cal will test USC backups against Arizona State.

October 01, 2003|Gary Klein | Times Staff Writer

Throughout training camp and the first few weeks of the season, USC Coach Pete Carroll and his staff proudly reveled in the fruits of their labor the last two seasons.

A strong finish in 2001 and a return to national prominence last season yielded two heralded recruiting classes. New players from high schools and junior colleges, several transfers from four-year schools, and holdovers from the Paul Hackett era who were nurtured by Carroll's staff, supposedly made for roster depth not enjoyed by the Trojans in years.

USC got off to a 3-0 start, climbed to No. 3 in the rankings and had some Trojan fans checking late December flight schedules to New Orleans, site of the Sugar Bowl and this season's national championship game.

Then last week's triple-overtime loss at California left the Trojans 0-1 in the Pacific 10 Conference, dropped them to No. 10 in the polls and put fans' holiday travel plans on hold.

USC, however, lost more than a game against Cal. Starting middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu and starting right tackle Winston Justice suffered ankle sprains, and both are doubtful for Saturday's game at Arizona State.

Starting quarterback Matt Leinart sprained a ligament in his left knee and also has a groin strain, but he is expected to play against the Sun Devils.

Nevertheless, Carroll acknowledges that depth questions are surfacing for the first time.

"I guess some of those comments [about depth] are getting challenged," he said. "We're getting checked out good here in a couple areas."

USC probably will turn to players with junior college backgrounds to fill voids left by Tatupu, a redshirt sophomore who leads the Trojans in tackles, and Justice, a sophomore regarded as a future All-American.

Redshirt junior Daniel Urquhart, who played at Washington High and Los Angeles Southwest College before enrolling at USC last year, is expected to start in place of Tatupu.

Junior John Drake, who played at Long Beach Wilson High and Long Beach City College, could start in place of Justice, especially if senior Eric Torres is still not recovered from a broken ankle suffered in the Orange Bowl.

"We definitely are going to need those guys to step up," Carroll said.

Urquhart, 6 feet 2 and 250 pounds, started training camp second on the depth chart behind Tatupu because sophomore Oscar Lua was coming off December surgery on his right knee. Urquhart is the largest player to play middle linebacker during Carroll's tenure with the Trojans.

"He's 250 pounds and he uses it well," Carroll said. "He's an NFL, physically loaded athlete."

Urquhart, who also plays on special teams, made two tackles against Auburn and Brigham Young, and three against Hawaii and Cal.

Urquhart said Tatupu helped prepare him for his opportunity Saturday.

"Those are big shoes to fill," Urquhart said. "Lofa has really helped me out. He got me to understand how everything works."

After the loss to Cal, Carroll said he might have erred by giving young players and backups the majority of repetitions during a bye week after the Sept. 13 victory over Hawaii. But that strategy helped Urquhart, linebacker coach Nick Holt said.

"That extra work really helped him," Holt said. "This is a window of opportunity here, and he needs to take advantage of it. We need him to do that."

Drake, 6-4 and listed at 350 pounds, has seized every chance that has come his way since working himself into better shape.

Drake, 21, said he learned quickly in training camp that his greatest challenge would be adapting to the speed and pace of USC practices. He reported weighing about 380 pounds, and Carroll once joked that he considered it a success if Drake drove past a fast-food restaurant without stopping.

"That doesn't bother me at all," Drake said this week. "I've been this size my whole life and there's no joke I haven't heard. And I guess it is a good sign when I drive past a Burger King because usually I do stop."

When starting left tackle Jacob Rogers and starting left guard Lenny Vandermade suffered foot injuries during training camp, Drake filled in at both positions. He also has worked at right guard and right tackle, and has played significant minutes at several positions as a backup in the first four games.

"He's older and has good awareness, football-wise, so he understands the principles of what we're trying to do," Carroll said. "Obviously, he's still a work in progress."

Drake feels the same way.

"They've seen the potential in me and they want me to reach it," he said. "They think, 'He was an OK player at 380, he's a better player at 340, what can he do if he really gets down to focus? What can he do when he really tunes it in and understands his opportunity?'

"Well, I understand now. That opportunity is here and I intend to do my part."

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