Soon enough, he’d be relegated to crutches, his left ankle covered with a temporary cast. But before the uncertainty over his status could set in, Eric Gentry burst unexpectedly out of the injury tent in Salt Lake City and onto the field, hopping as best he could on one leg to bark one last bit of instructions to his fellow USC defenders.
It was a tone-setting moment for a Trojans defense that’s tried heartily to change its culture and reestablish a reputation for toughness that had been lacking in recent seasons. The transfer linebacker and his fiery passion had been a major part of that effort. “It fueled us,” fellow linebacker Shane Lee said.
But in Gentry’s absence at Utah, USC’s defense struggled to conjure that same fire in the second half. It allowed 291 yards and Utah never punted on its way to a 43-42 win. Lincoln Riley called it the worst tackling performance of the season.
The Trojans have had two weeks to reflect on that effort, but Gentry hasn’t practiced in full since because of his ankle injury. Riley said the decision whether he and fellow inside linebacker Ralen Goforth (hand) play at Arizona would be a “down-to-the-wire” call Saturday afternoon. Both could conceivably be held out.
Their absence would be a major test of the depth in the middle of USC’s defense. With Lee also battling through a hand injury, the Trojans would have to rely heavily on unproven linebackers to set the tone.
Defensive coordinator Alex Grinch admitted “a high level of concern” when asked about USC’s lack of depth at linebacker.
But Riley seemed far less concerned as it pertained to this week. He expressed confidence that Tuasivi Nomura and Raesjon Davis could seamlessly step in at linebacker, if needed.
Nomura, especially, had left quite an impression on USC’s staff in recent weeks. Against Fresno State, Riley said, the redshirt junior linebacker suffered a compound fracture in his finger — “like bone sticking out,” the coach said — but Nomura played three more plays before telling anyone. He made two tackles in the process.
Riley and Grinch called the display “unbelievable.”
“Tells you about his toughness and about how much he wants to do well for this team. Pretty cool,” Riley said.
“What a great visual for a guy that only knows one way to do it,” Grinch added.
Davis was less enamored when he saw a photo of Nomura’s finger.
“It was horrible,” Davis said. “I was like, ‘Dang, that’s crazy.’ The fact that he played through it, it shows the type of guy Sivi is.”
With his finger healed, Nomura has had his role grow the last two weeks, especially as Lee and Gentry dealt with injuries. But for Davis, the former blue-chip prospect from Santa Ana Mater Dei, it could mark his first extended opportunity at inside linebacker this season.
Riley said this week that Davis was “on the cusp” of a bigger role.
“We’ve been pleased with his progress,” Riley said. “He’s worked hard, he’s really changed his body, which was a big challenge for us after spring. And I think on a very upward trajectory right now.”
That trajectory may have to speed up, if Gentry or Goforth are unable to play against Arizona, which has an offense that Riley characterized Thursday as “easily one of the best we’ve played.”
“By and large those individuals have taken advantage of those reps,” Grinch said of his linebacker depth. “That’s the expectation for those guys, an increased role in most instances and maybe a new role in others. Guys have to step up and the guys around them have to step up as well.”