Robert Woods' ankle injury a mystery

When will Robert Woods be ready to return to the field?

Good question.

Nobody really knows the answer, though -- not Woods, or Lane Kiffin, the Trojans' head coach. Not Ted Gilmore, his position coach, or any of Woods' teammates, either, for that matter. Everybody has been extra vague on his return.

"He's gotta get back out here," Kiffin said after Thursday's practice, when asked exactly what Woods' status was with his sprained ankle suffered in April. "We need him back out here to get the timing down and get himself right."

"Hopefully that'll be soon."

Well, Woods was back Thursday -- to a very limited extent. He participated in a few individual drills in the early part of practice and then sat out of all the team drills later, as he has much for of the last week of fall camp.

Asked when he could be back, fully, Woods said he was "not sure" and "didn't really know." But he also said he was already "close to 100 [percent]."

So, when?

"It's hard to say," Woods said. "I want to be ready for the first game but, then again, I have to get the timing down with [Matt] Barkley and get ready for the first game.

"I can't just hop into it."

He said he thought he'd be OK to participate in team drills Thursday until Kiffin pulled him aside early on and said he'd rather him not. He also said he'll try to do some more Friday, although he didn't sound very enthusiastic about what his efforts would yield.

"It's kind of depressing, sitting on the side watching," Woods said. "I want to get better, not watch everybody else get reps and get better. Those are some of the reps that I could have.

"But as long as it makes the team better and the receivers are in their place faster -- I'm just trying to take care of myself and get ready for the first game, so I can help the team."

It's interesting that both Woods and Kiffin quickly mentioned the timing between the receiver and the quarterback as one of the main reasons Woods needs to get back soon. That's clearly the biggest issue-within-the-issue here, as all of the coaches know Woods will keep in shape on his own and stay mentally ready for game situations.

This whole thing could also have been avoided -- or minimized, at least -- if Woods would have been more careful with his injury in the first place. He hurt his ankle almost four months ago now, on April 22, in a pick-up basketball game. At the time, Kiffin called it "nothing serious," and Woods said a few weeks later when summer workouts and throwing sessions began that he was back to normal and not being bothered by it any longer.

But the workouts and throwing sessions ended up hurting him by prolonging the injury. He really shouldn't have been practicing with the team, he said Thursday, in retrospect.

"I enjoyed being out here, but I feel like if I could have sat out then I would've been better," Woods said.

So why did he practice? Woods attributed most of it to "team pressure," players wanting their No. 1 receiver to practice with them.

Here's the thing, though: Woods' presence matters much more in fall than in summer. And, sure, some of the younger players at his position are indirectly benefiting from his absence by getting extra snaps, but the Trojans need him back shortly, for reasons beyond just how many catches he'll produce.

"We're getting more experience, definitely, because he's out or whatever, but we miss him," said projected starter and senior receiver Brandon Carswell. "He's a leader. He helps me teach the young guys, so that's what we miss."