LOS ANGELES (AP) — Outside linebacker Porter Gustin was still the hardest working player at No. 15 Southern California even as he recovered from a torn meniscus in his left knee.
Already known for his commitment to eating right and working out, Gustin began waking up at 5:30 a.m. to begin a lengthy regimen of icing down and stretching out the ligament.
"Might as well during camp," Gustin said. "We got nothing else to do, so get up, rehab, get after it and start the day."
That level of dedication appears to have paid off, as Gustin is on track to play in the Trojans' season opener against UNLV on Saturday after being hurt in practice on Aug. 7.
"Unless something really bad happens, I'm planning on playing. I'm feeling good and ready to go," Gustin said Wednesday night, exactly three weeks after undergoing knee surgery.
Gustin did not feel any adverse effects following his return to practice on Tuesday. He has been medically cleared by team doctors, giving the senior added confidence that he would be able to play for the first time since October after appearing in just four games last season because of injuries.
He played against Texas days after having pins surgically implanted to repair a broken toe, recording two sacks in the first half before hurting his biceps. Gustin played in one more game before being shut down for the season because of the two injuries.
Gustin acknowledged at the Pac-12 media day in July that he came back too soon against the Longhorns. He is taking a more cautious approach to his recovery this time.
"I'm going to make sure that I'm ready to go and that I'm able to perform at a high level and perform to what I think is my 100 percent," Gustin said. "Obviously, I didn't get to play all of camp so there is some catching up to do, but even as early as I came back I felt like I could have come back earlier than that. But I wanted to take things slower."
Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast said Gustin needed supervision to make sure he stuck to the plan.
"He was anxious last week," Pendergast said. "We had to take his helmet from him, he was trying to practice last week."
When available, Gustin has been one of the best edge rushers in the Pac-12, with 14 sacks among his 23 tackles for loss in 31 career games. Pendergast expects the 6-foot-5, 250-pound powerhouse to boost a defense that produced 46 sacks, tied with Clemson for most in the FBS, in part by lining Gustin up in different positions to create more pressure in obvious passing situations.
"I expect big things out of him this year, and I know he's expecting a lot of himself," Pendergast said.
Pendergast would like to take advantage of USC's improved depth to keep Gustin fresh and maximize his impact on the field, but he realizes that might be easier said than done.
"I feel like we have people that we can put in to save 20-25 plays off of him in a game, but you have got to take his helmet to keep him off the field, so we have to have someone watching that," said Pendergast, jokingly adding that that responsibility would fall to the team's equipment managers.
NOTES: Center Toa Lobendahn (pectoral strain) missed practice for the second consecutive day. If Lobendahn cannot play, redshirt freshman Brett Neilon would start.
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