Southern Cal blue chips put on rush party
LOS ANGELES — Tempting as it is to say that No. 1-ranked Southern California has a tailback-by-committee approach to its running game heading into this weekend's trip to No. 14 Nebraska, that wouldn't be entirely accurate.
It's more like a tailback convention.
All one needs to attend is a personal invitation from USC coach Pete Carroll. And, of course, be a former high school All-American. This year, that has limited the field to nine.
That's right, the Trojans have nine former prep All-Americans lining up for a shot at the tailback spot.
It was 10 until sophomore Emmanuel Moody decided the convention approach wasn't his thing and transferred to Florida.
"He wanted to be 'The Man,' I guess," sophomore tailback C.J. Gable says. "But we don't really have that here. It's more like 'The Men.' "
What it is, is astonishing.
"It's different, that's for sure," Trojans running backs coach Todd McNair concedes.
Most teams have a depth chart. At USC, at tailback, it's more like a depth book. It includes two tailbacks who shared a starting role last year — Gable and fifth-year senior Chauncey Washington. Gable had five starts last year, Washington and Moody each had four.
It includes another fifth-year senior, Desmond Reed, and a sixth-year senior, Hershel Dennis, who was granted a rare sixth year of eligibility because he had to sit out the past two seasons with knee injuries.
(How long has Dennis been around? He was the starter in 2003, backed up by freshmen named Reggie Bush and LenDale White.)
It includes a trio of sophomores in Gable, Stafon Johnson and Allen Bradford.
As if having seven returning tailbacks (including Moody) wasn't enough, Carroll brought in three of last season's most highly touted high school running backs: Joe McKnight, Marc Tyler and Broderick Green.
Joe McKnight and Tyler were both on last season's USA TODAY All-USA first team. If they're currently fifth- or seventh- or ninth-string, that doesn't mean they've joined the USC orchestra. It means they're in line, waiting, learning, trying to stay ready.
"They're all in good spirits, working hard," McNair says. "I don't foresee any more casualties, so to speak
"But it's hard. What we have going here isn't for everybody. Some people don't have the stomach for the level of competition out here. But I like it. It makes them better."
But does it work for USC on game day? Last season, the first in four years without the Thunder and Lightning combo of White and Bush, the committee approach faltered, as the Trojans gained a pedestrian 128 yards a game, less than half of the 2005 average of 260.
In this season's opener, the Trojans ran for 214 yards in a 38-10 rout of Idaho. Five different tailbacks were used. Johnson led in carries with 12; Gable led in yards with 68.
Whether the Trojans continue to use a handful (or two) of tailbacks, each getting limited touches, remains to be seen.
"If we're winning, I don't care," Carroll says, laughing. "I'd like to zero in on some guys, but I don't know if that will happen this week. It continues to be a competitive situation. It hasn't cleared up yet."
It might get a little muddier this week if Washington is ready. He led USC last season with 744 yards and is the most powerful of the tailbacks, but he missed the opener with a sore shoulder.
Gable and Johnson figure to get carries again this week. How many? They don't know.
"It's hard, but you have to deal with it," Gable says. "When I get in a rhythm, I like to stay in there. I think they're waiting for someone to show they can do everything. Or maybe they're not, I don't know. But I'm going to try to show them I can be that guy."
Johnson was no factor last year but has shown perhaps the biggest year-to-year jump and is staying positive.
"I knew there would be great competition. That's why I came here," he says. "You just have to go with the flow. You don't know if you'll get one play or 10 plays. So you just play every play 110%. If it's a block, you try to decapitate somebody."
The shiftiest runner is probably Joe McKnight, who is likely to be used catching passes out of the backfield. He is expected to become a star, but in the opener, he touched the ball just seven times (six carries, one reception).
Like all of them, he waits for his next chance.
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