Three weeks ago, Gino Quinones stood on USC’s practice field and declared himself a cheat code.
A bold statement, said with Quinones’ usual bashful smile, yet accurate on many levels – this was an offensive lineman with years of knowledge of defensive rotations, dating to his high school years in Hawaii playing on the defensive front. And after more years honing technique at USC while maintaining the hand-to-hand defensive combat he’d learned in high school, the redshirt senior has been a plug-and-play mainstay on the Trojans’ ever-shifting line this season, capable of handling either guard spot and filling in at center.
But USC has lost that cheat code for the year, as Coach Lincoln Riley told media Tuesday that Quinones – who buckled in the first quarter of Saturday’s victory over Nevada and was gingerly helped off the field – has suffered a season-ending lower leg injury.
“Hate it for him,” Riley said. “He’s really done an outstanding job to become part of our rotation.”
Quinones’ climb has been long and far from easy, a kid who calls himself his own biggest critic. After coming from Hawaii and switching units completely, he redshirted his freshman year and played sparingly his next two before earning a couple of spot starts in 2022.
“I knew offensive line was a whole different position, so, did I know it’d take some time?” Quinones said earlier in fall camp. “Yeah, of course. I needed to learn a lot of technique.”
Amid a unit that’s been competing since the spring, though, Quinones established himself as a “really key, valuable member,” as Riley said last week. It led to a triumphant and tearful moment in USC’s first game, when Quinones filled a starting guard spot with his family in the stands – whom he hadn’t seen in a year and a half, he said.
“I got a little emotional,” he told reporters last week, choking up and bowing his head.
With Tuesday’s news, he’ll have to claw his way back up again.
“I think he’ll be a big part of the future, the offensive line,” Riley said.
WHAT IT MEANS FOR THE TROJANS’ O-LINE
Quinones has been far and away the Trojans’ highest-graded guard through two games, according to Pro Football Focus’ player-rating system. Emmanuel Pregnon and Jarrett Kingston – who both started at guard for USC against Nevada – and freshman Alani Noa have all graded out as largely inconsistent, with Noa especially struggling in pass-block situations.
As USC’s offensive line carousel begins to slow, Kingston will likely be entrenched as the starter at right guard, while Pregnon has shown enough that he probably deserves the opportunity to start at left guard. Noa is the X-factor here, a young talent who has drawn more buzz than anyone on the line this fall but made some “freshman-kinda mistakes” against Nevada, as offensive line coach Josh Henson put it.
“Puts more opportunities on the shoulders of Kingston and Pregnon and Alani, and some of those guys inside that need to step up … we suspect that they will,” Riley said Tuesday.
Notably, Quinones’ injury also robs the Trojans of a fill-in center, leaving sophomore Killian O’Connor – who hasn’t played a snap at USC – as the only backup behind captain Justin Dedich.
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