USC Football shouldn’t fear the No. 55, let a promising freshman honor it

Stephen Dunn /Allsport
Stephen Dunn /Allsport /

USC football should stop fearing the No. 55 and award it to a promising freshman who could go on to further the legacy of Junior Seau and company.

The No. 55 is an iconic jersey for USC football, one which should be cherished and honored. But the Trojans hesitation to put it back into circulation isn’t the right play.

On Wednesday, after much speculation that five-star linebacker Palaie Gaoteote could be awarded the number, it was revealed that he will wear the No. 1 instead.

In a perfect world, the No. 55 would be earned by a deserving player. Perhaps that’s what Clay Helton and company are waiting for.

Of course, the last time that topic came up, the idea of Cameron Smith adopting the number drew criticism ahead of the 2016 season.

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Now a senior and one clearly worthy of representing the jersey, Smith is firmly entrenched in the legacy of the No. 35.

And the No. 55 remains dormant.

Is that a good thing?

No player has worn No. 55 since Lamar Dawson graduated in 2015. That in and of itself is a cautionary tale. He was awarded the number as a highly-touted freshman, but never lived up to the billing. And he picked it up after a short hiatus following Keith River’s graduation, making him the only player to have donned the shirt in a decade.

Is USC afraid of that happening again? Is it better to have the No. 55 out of circulation than to have it locked up by an underperforming player?

The history of the jersey favors the risk of the latter idea.

While the ideal would be for only a worthy player to wear it, awarding it only after a player is deemed worthy would be a new concept.

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Junior Seau wore it both seasons he lettered at USC. Willie McGinest, Israel Ifeanyi, Chris Claiborne, Markus Steele and Keith Rivers all wore the jersey for the entirety of their careers. Some lived up to it. Some didn’t. But the jersey was handed out then on potential, not achievement.

USC has built up the legend of the No. 55 so much, it’s afraid to let that legend grow.

Just look at the No. 42, easily among the greatest numbers in Trojan history.

It narrowly escaped retirement when All-American running back Ricky Bell just missed out on winning a Heisman in it. Before Bell, it had been worn by All-American guard Pat Cannamela and USC legend C.R. Roberts, the All-Conference running back who helped integrate Texas in 1956.

Arguably the greatest player in USC history wore the No. 42, Hall of Fame safety Ronnie Lott. And he was followed by All-American receiver Erik Affholter and, most recently, All-American Uchenna Nwosu.

The No. 42 isn’t shut away now that Nwosu has vacated it. Freshman linebacker Abdul-Malik McClain has the task of carrying on its success as he begins his career.

It’s time to stop fearing the No. 55 so much that it’s kept packed away, never to see the light. It’s time to honor Seau’s memory by giving others the chance to further his legacy, in the same way Bell’s legacy is furthered every time another All-American dons the No. 42.

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If Gaoteote wants the number, then let him take on that responsibility. If he doesn’t, then don’t be afraid the next time a promising young linebacker comes along who does.