Will USC’s Ronald Jones have heavier workload against Utah?

LOS ANGELES — In the first three games of this season, USC running back Ronald Jones shouldered a heavy workload.

Jones ran 18 times in the opener against Western Michigan, equaled a career-high 23 carries against Stanford and followed with 18 more against Texas.

Then he was hurt. The junior was held out at Cal because of a sprained ankle.

The Trojans’ staff has eased him back.

Over the past two weeks, Jones averaged 13 carries per game, a drop from early September when he was a bigger focus of the game plan.

“We got what we could out of him,” USC coach Clay Helton said.

That might change this week.

Jones said most of the swelling in his ankle has subsided. He’s healthier after being limited since his return.

“I’m getting back to full strength,” Jones said.

USC also needs a reliable running threat. Backup Stephen Carr, a freshman, has not practiced since suffering a foot injury at Washington State and remains questionable to play Saturday against Utah. The Utes are regarded for annually fielding physical defensive lines and are often stout against the run. They rank third in the Pac-12 in rush defense through the first six weeks.

“It reminds me of a Stanford ballgame,” Helton said of facing Utah.

Last Saturday against Oregon State, Jones rushed for 79 yards and one touchdown on 12 carries. Helton called it an “efficient” effort. His longest run was for 13 yards, but he averaged almost 7 yards per carry.

“The production is still there when we get the opportunity,” Jones said, “but as long as we’re winning ballgames, it doesn’t matter.”

BIG MAN DOWN

Freshman defensive tackle Marlon Tuipulotu will miss the rest of the season after he underwent back surgery Tuesday, thinning USC’s defensive line.

Helton did not detail the nature of the injury, only describing it as a “lower-back injury.”

“I’m not a doctor,” he said.

Tuipulotu is eligible to apply for a medical hardship waiver, and Helton expected it to be granted. He appeared in three games this season against Western Michigan, Stanford and Cal and started in Week 2 against the Cardinal when USC lined up an additional defensive linemen.

But Tuipulotu missed the next game against Texas because of a knee, and though he returned at Cal, he missed the last two games with a back injury, including last Saturday’s win over Oregon State.

When asked about his long-term prognosis, Helton said, “For the big picture, it’s very, very positive for him. The future is bright for the kid.”

Tuipulotu was a five-star recruit, who flipped from Washington in January and enrolled early at USC so he could participate in spring practice.

Helton said Tuipulotu first reported back problems during the spring workouts and “just experienced more and more” until team doctors recommended further examination.

“He was fighting through it since he’s been here,” Helton said.

With Tuipulotu sidelined, USC played freshman defensive tackle Brandon Pili against Oregon State. Pili had previously been a candidate to redshirt.

Senior Josh Fatu has started all six games this season as the Trojans’ nose tackle, but has been limited at times with a knee injury.

CONFERENCE COACHING CHANGES

Two days after a loss to USC, Oregon State coach Gary Andersen and the school announced that they had agreed to mutually part ways.

Andersen was in his third season with the Beavers and had gone 7-23.

“It’s part of the business, and it’s the hardest part of the business,” Helton said.

Helton was twice on USC’s coaching staff during midseason firings of Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian in 2013 and 2015, respectively.

QUICK HITS

Tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe took part in a full-pads practice for the first time since before the season. Imatorbhebhe, also a talented pass catcher, has been out since the opener because of a strained hip flexor. … Starting right tackle Chuma Edoga remained out with a high ankle sprain.

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