LOS ANGELES -- The absences for No. 5 Southern California were offset by one big return on Wednesday.
Outside linebacker Uchenna Nwosu was back at practice, and coach Clay Helton was optimistic about the senior's chances of playing against unbeaten California on Saturday. Nwosu could provide a big lift for the Trojans, especially considering outside linebacker Porter Gustin (toe/biceps), defensive end Rasheem Green (ankle) and slot cornerback Ajene Harris (knee) were held out again.
Nwosu, who sprained his knee during Saturday's double-overtime win over Texas, has been the Trojans' top defender this season. Nwosu has seven pass breakups, which ranks second in the Pac-12, and his ability to create havoc around the line of scrimmage prompted Helton to call him the most valuable player on that side of the ball. Facing the upstart Golden Bears without Nwosu would be a major challenge.
Gustin, who has a team-leading three sacks, seems unlikely to play in USC's road opener, while the other two injured defenders are questionable.
Given the circumstances, Helton has stressed that every player on the roster needs to be ready to play. It seems as if his team is listening, with outside linebacker Connor Murphy among those putting in additional time after practice had concluded.
"Everybody is just trying to get extra work where they need it right now," Murphy said. "Right now, I need it on the field, so that's what I was out here doing."
Murphy replaced Gustin in the second half against Texas, giving the sophomore some much-needed extended playing time after working as a backup and on special teams in his first season. Murphy now believes he is ready for his first start, if needed.
"I feel like a lot of the butterflies are out now," Murphy said. "Obviously, that was like my first semi-full game since high school. I got to break off some rust in a couple places, but my confidence level going into the next game is definitely a lot higher."
Murphy and his teammates are taking inspiration from Christian Rector, who has emerged as an important part of the defense. Rector has played multiple positions on the line and even outside linebacker. The redshirt sophomore stepped in for Green and forced a critical fumble in the second overtime against the Longhorns.
Rector was recruited by California coach Justin Wilcox when Wilcox was USC's defensive coordinator. He spent his first year trying to bulk up for Wilcox's 3-4 system and then gradually worked into a reserve role last season.
Rector knew he would make the most of his opportunity whenever he got on the field, and he wants those players potentially in line to see the field this week to do the same.
"I have full confidence in myself and my ability," Rector said. "It's a player development program, and kids that are five-star, four-star recruits do come in and wait 'cause there's guys that are more prepared. I found myself in that situation. Just put my head down and worked every day."