USC's Vavae Malepeai: 'My Fault' For Not Disclosing Injury

Adam Maya

Starting running back Vavae Malepeai played hurt this season, for all six games that he played. The left knee he injured at the beginning of training camp never fully healed but he fought through it until it required surgery.

“I’ve seen curves in my knee that I haven’t seen since summer,” Malepeai said Tuesday, moments after completing his first practice in full pads in more than a month. “Everything feels good right now. I just have to take care of my body.”

After participating in every period, the redshirt junior is hopeful that he’ll return for Saturday’s game at Cal. He clarified that he wasn’t that close to playing this past Saturday. He went through warmups so that this week wouldn’t be his first workout in full pads, but it was ultimately still a rehab day.

Coach Clay Helton said both Malepeai and Stephen Carr (hamstring) took positive steps Tuesday but was noncommittal about their game status, calling them day to day depending on how their bodies respond to practice.

It provides further context to the decision not to redshirt Kenan Christon. It’s also a learning lesson for Malepeai and the USC coaching staff.

As Malepeai received 23 carries in a three-point loss to BYU, a game in which he briefly exited and was moderately productive, Markese Stepp was used sparingly before the fourth quarter and Kenan Christon wasn't at all. The same scenario played out in wins over Stanford and Utah, both of which were much more successful containing Malepeai than Stepp.

“My knee was really swollen after games and we’d have to do things to get the swelling down, and it was hard,” Malepeai explained. “Throughout the week it would swell up. After the game, fat knee again.”

Malepeai had USC’s most carries in every game until Notre Dame, which saw Stepp rush two more times and gain 36 more yards. Christon, of course, didn’t play in any of the first six games of the season, three of which were losses.

Malepeai's answer to which game he felt healthiest in was telling.

“I would say the first practice,” he said. “It was my fault. I didn’t say nothing about it until Week 3 when I got hurt against BYU. That’s when I started coming in to the training room, taking the swelling down. It would just swell up again. ...

“You’re trying to contribute to the team, you don’t want to hurt the team,” Malepeai said. “My mindset was, if I’m going to play, I’m not going to complain about it, just play to the best of my ability. It took a toll on my body. That’s on me, that’s my fault.”

Malepeai initially injured his knee in Week 1 of camp, and he missed the majority of August. He had a huge game in the season opener against Fresno State, setting career highs in carries (23) and yards (134). His production then decreased on a per-carry basis over the next four contests, before spiking up against Notre Dame following a bye. 

Malepeai had surgery a few days after returning from South Bend.

Even after missing the past four games, Malepeai remains USC’s leading rusher on the season with 406 yards and a team-high four rushing touchdowns. He also still has 30 more carries than the next tailback. His yards per carry (4.6), however, trail Stepp (6.4), Carr (5.7) and Christon (5.6).

Malepeai said he's learned the importance of listening to his body and taking care of it through this process. As for what he'd do differently ... 

“I don’t even want to think about that,” he said. “I don’t need to give negative energy to negative situations. I’m just moving forward. I’m on the field now, I’m grateful for it.”

USC has a lot to be grateful for with him as well. He worked four years for this opportunity and by all accounts has been a consummate member of the team. It just doesn’t change the fact that overutilizing an injured Malepeai meant underutilizing a healthy Stepp, Carr and Christon.

FOOTNOTES

-- Helton said Christon will continue to have a notable role in each of the season’s final games now that the freshman won’t be redshirting.

“We had to make a full-speed decision,” Helton said. “We’re going to commit for the rest of the season that he’s in each and every game.”

-- Wide receiver Tyler Vaughns, who suffered an ankle injury near the end of the Arizona State game did not practice. He did side work at the beginning of Tuesday’s practice and then went in for treatment. Helton said he won’t know until later in the week whether he’ll play.

“He’s having a little trouble getting off and exploding and jumping,” Helton said. “… I think he’s a little ways off.”

-- If Vaughns isn’t available, Amon-Ra St. Brown would start outside opposite Michael Pittman, and Drake London would start inside. Helton said freshman Kyle Ford will also play Saturday, which would be his fourth game. The plan is to then preserve his redshirt. Offensive coordinator Graham Harrell intimated that Ford’s role hasn’t increased yet because he needs to catch up in the system.

-- Center Brett Neilon will be out “multiple weeks” with a calf injury. Justin Dedich, who relieved Neilon in the second half at ASU, will make his first career start versus Cal. Right guard Jalen McKenzie is the backup center.

-- Defensive tackle Marlon Tuipulotu, linebacker Palaie Gaoteote (ankle) and Greg Johnson (concussion) returned to practice. 

-- Senior linebacker Jordan Iosefa, who briefly returned to practice in October after undergoing knee surgery before the season, has been out the past few weeks and appears to be preparing to return next year.

-- Nickelback Max Williams (foot) will likely miss the remainder of the season. 

-- Adam Maya is a USC graduate and has been covering the Trojans since 2003. Follow him on Twitter @AdamJMaya.

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