Los Angeles • USC’s Porter Gustin is a freakish athlete, pass-rushing predator, conditioning consultant and Cameron Smith’s conscience.
Whenever he’s craving sweets, Smith hears the voice of his fellow linebacker. “I swear, I think about Porter,” Smith said. “Would he look at me and say, ‘Man, what a disappointment you are?’ His discipline, his level of passion to be great, is something I think about all the time.”
That's where the definition of “freak” expands, beyond the traditional label of a gifted athlete. Gustin, a senior from Salem Hills High School in southern Utah County, is proud to have made multiple lists of the most freakish college football players this summer. He embraces that description and teammates endorse it, because of Gustin's process, as much as the outcome.
Or does everybody do yoga and drink chicken, cauliflower, potato and raw egg smoothies?
Gustin made sports look easy at Salem Hills, where he also played basketball and baseball and competed in the javelin and shot put in track and field. His 14 sacks in three years as an outside linebacker for USC, even while he missed most of last season with injuries, have distinguished him, aside from his beard and flowing hair.
USC coach Clay Helton even wants Gustin, in his own way, to help determine the winner of the Trojans' quarterbacking derby in August. Practices will include more live situations than usual. “They're going to see bullets fly,” Helton said. “They're going to have Porter Gustin breathing down their necks to see how they function.”
That’s Gustin’s game. And as it turns out, it takes a lot of work to become a natural athlete. Freak? That’s a reward, not merely a designation.
“I’ve worked really hard on my body, my physique, over the last eight years or so,” Gustin said during Pac-12 Media Day. “It’s something that I’ve strived for, so to have that be the final outcome, it does mean a lot.”
He got there by going beyond the Trojans' standard workouts, although he had to learn to keep his own sessions within the framework of conditioning coach Ivan Lewis' strategy. He's an adviser and advocate for his teammates, having talked to Helton and the staff nutritionist about getting more food for the players.
Proper food, of course.
“He's a freak, in all sorts of ways,” Smith said. “He's so disciplined and just wants to be great. We all want to be like him, but it's tough because he's trained his whole life for his body to be like that.”
His family also produced Lauren Gustin, a Salem Hills basketball star who was named The Tribune's player of the year in March. She's headed to the University of Idaho, in the state where the Gustins lived before moving to Elk Ridge.
Porter Gustin will be a big hit at the NFL Draft Combine in February. He’s 6-foot-5 and 255 pounds, with running, lifting and jumping skills that will produce remarkable numbers in those tests. He’s also a productive football player who made 13 tackles in a 2016 loss at Utah, his only appearance in the state as a Trojan.
USC will come to town Oct. 20, during a senior season that Gustin hopes to maximize. The toe and bicep injuries that limited him to four games last year made him appreciate college football even more. “I’ve really grateful I’ve got another year to come out and play and show everything that I’ve worked for in the offseason and didn’t get to show last season,” he said.
Gustin and Smith, who plays inside linebacker, will anchor the defense of a USC team that is picked to repeat as the Pac-12 South champion. Smith made himself unforgettable to the Utes in October 2015, intercepting three passes (returning one for a touchdown) in the Trojans' win over previously unbeaten Utah. Gustin’s role is labeled the “predator” in USC’s scheme, with pass-rushing emphasis.
The Pac-12 protocol is for each school to bring one offensive and one defensive player to Media Day. USC chose two linebackers, “because they represent what Trojans are,” Helton said. “They’re great players, they’re great men and great students. Both [will] graduate this semester. Both are going to play on Sundays.”
Gustin will become less of a freak in an NFL context, but he'll undoubtedly find ways to stand out.
College football’s “most freakish athletes,” according to NFL.com
1 • Ed Oliver, DT, Houston.
2 • Rashan Gary, DL, Michigan.
3 • Jabari Zuniga, DE, Florida.
4 • Dexter Lawrence, DT, Clemson.
5 • Porter Gustin, LB, USC.
6 • Jalen Hurd, WR, Baylor.
7 • Renell Wren, DL, Arizona State.
8 • Christian Wilkins, DT, Clemson.
9 • Jalen Moore, RB, Appalachian State.
10 • Paris Campbell, WR, Ohio State.
Note: Utah State RB Darwin Thompson is No. 17, among the 18 players listed.