By Gary Klein, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
October 19, 2007
Sean Milota has not officially been added to USC's roster. A member of the football team for only four days, Milota practiced Tuesday and Thursday.
But Dennis Slutak, USC's director of football operations, gazed to the heavens this week as he strode through Heritage Hall, describing Milota's presence as "divine intervention for Notre Dame week."
Milota does not consider himself a godsend. With USC's ravaged offensive line in need of injury-free bodies, the former high school defensive lineman -- who hasn't played in three years -- decided to offer up his 6-feet-8, 265 pounds after a chance meeting on campus with quarterback Mark Sanchez.
"I heard they were dropping like flies," Milota said of the offensive linemen. "I just wanted to help out and I heard they were looking for big guys. I thought, 'Well, I'm here and I'm big so I might as well give it a shot.' "
When Milota quietly walked into the position group's meeting room this week and was asked to introduce himself, he was welcomed by the assembled offensive linemen with open arms -- even if it pained them to do so because of soreness, torn muscles and separated shoulders.
In a sport in which injuries are part of the game, the 13th-ranked Trojans have suffered an uncommon number, especially along the offensive line.
"We went from the dream team O-line we thought we would be to struggling to get guys out for practice," senior center Matt Spanos said, shaking his head.
All-American tackle Sam Baker did not practice this week because of a hamstring strain suffered last week against Arizona. Guard Chilo Rachal is still recovering from a knee injury and will probably only be used in an emergency in Saturday's game at South Bend, Ind., and other players are in varying stages of recovery from injuries.
USC flew east Thursday with seven relatively sound offensive linemen and will probably take the field for its seventh game with its fifth different starting combination.
"You'd like to have all that continuity, but we're just not even in that mode," Coach Pete Carroll said.
USC's highly regarded recruiting classes have been long on tailbacks and linebackers but short on offensive linemen. The Trojans began training camp with 14, short of what would have made them three deep.
The domino effect took over from there, Carroll said.
"When position groups start to go and guys get banged up or they start having to pull up, it takes the wear and tear on the other guys . . . " Carroll said. "You try to stop it from happening, but they get vulnerable."
Quarterback John David Booty, who suffered a broken finger against Stanford, said the constant shuffling because of injuries will pay dividends, because untested players are learning to communicate in game situations and gaining from experience. But he acknowledged that it also has affected the Trojans' offense.
"I'm sure there are times where a play doesn't go quite as good as it could have because of something like that, no doubt," he said.
Health concerns for the offensive line began during spring and summer when freshman Martin Coleman required knee surgery and oft-injured fifth-year senior Drew Radovich was unable to complete workouts because of back soreness.
The first real crack in the unit came early in training camp when Baker, feeling great after off-season arthroscopic knee surgery, suffered a fractured rib.
"It happened so early, we weren't worried about it," Carroll said.
With Baker sidelined, Charles Brown and Thomas Herring worked at the tackle spots, flanking Spanos and guards Jeff Byers and Rachal.
But just as Baker and Radovich rounded into shape, Spanos suffered a torn right triceps before the opener against Idaho. Kristofer O'Dowd was thrust into the lineup and became the first freshman in USC history to start a game at center.
The lineup remained mostly intact through the first three games before O'Dowd and Rachal suffered knee injuries on the same play against Washington.
Spanos, on the trip mainly as an emergency backup, jumped into the game and Alatini Malu played in place of Rachal, suffering a strained hamstring in the process.
Redshirt freshman Zack Heberer started for the first time at guard during USC's stunning loss against Stanford and the carnage continued: Spanos was late for the second half because doctors were stitching up two fingers on his right hand.
Before last week's game against Arizona, backups Brown and Thomas Herring suffered ankle sprains and watched from the sideline in protective boots. Redshirt freshman Butch Lewis limped away from practice last Thursday with his foot encased in ice.
But when Baker left the game, Lewis was thrust into action. Heberer then went down with a shoulder injury, forcing Malu back onto the field.
"I don't think I've ever seen anything like this," said offensive line coach Pat Ruel, who started his career in 1973.
Despite the injuries, Ruel, Carroll and offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian all see the same silver lining.
"When we get healthy this is a very good thing, because then we're truly a very deep football team," Sarkisian said.
Meantime, Carroll is thrilled that Milota responded to what the coach called "an all-points bulletin for any big guys on campus."
Milota, 20, last played football in 2004 when he was a defensive lineman at Lake Forest El Toro. He attended Saddleback and Irvine Valley colleges, earning an associate of arts degree and then transferring to USC.
Sanchez put Milota in touch with Slutak, Milota met briefly with the coaches, and the next thing he knew he was in a three-point stance for the scout team going head-to-head with nose tackle Sedrick Ellis.
Milota's academic schedule limits him to two practices a week. The business administration major did not travel to Notre Dame and is not sure where his experience will lead, but he is excited about the chance. "The way I see it," he said. "I'm just helping out the team."