USC Football Preview: Trojans Loaded At Running Back
Lane Kiffin has a problem, and it has nothing to do with something he said or a recruiting code he violated.
For the first time as a head coach, the 35-year-old has a vast array of talented running backs at his disposal -- a luxury that may be finally put the kibosh on his well-documented penchant for overusing single backs (Montario Hardesty and Justin Fargas please stand up).
Let’s face it, Tailback U has been somewhat dormant in recent years despite an accumulation of prized recruits.
No knock on Joe McKnight -- okay, maybe a little knock -- but the hype surrounding him well surpassed his talent during his tenure at USC. And while this year’s crop of backs may not be heading into the season with the same fanfare McKnight and Co. received, Kiffin has amassed the type of depth and balance at the position that would make even Charles White and Sam “Bam” Cunningham smile.
Allen Bradford (RS Senior)
For the diehard fan, last year’s 9-4 “dud” of a season left little room for a silver lining. But if ever there was one, Bradford would be it.
The safety-turned-tailback sat behind a cavalcade of Pete Carroll favorites from 2006-2008 (McKnight, Stafon Johnson and C.J. Gable being the primary guys). That, combined with the nagging injuries that plagued him over the course of his first two seasons, made the San Bernadino native a virtual unknown before he burst onto the scene last season.
Statistically, Bradford was the No. 2 USC rusher behind McKnight in 2009. His 668 yards on 115 carries (5.8 yards per carry) illustrated that the 6-foot, 235-pound back had the potential to be more than just a momentary spark plug.
A nagging knee injury will likely force him into platoon duty on Thursday against Hawaii, but don’t expect the fifth-year senior to be playing second fiddle for very long. His awareness and his aggressive, North-South running style make him the perfect candidate to get the majority of the Trojans’ carries this season.
Marc Tyler (RS Junior)
This may come a year late for you pop culture buffs, but Tyler’s theme song is undoubtedly “My Time” by Fabolous.
Coming out of Oaks Christian High School in 2006, Tyler was the No. 2 running back in the nation behind former teammate Joe McKnight. Then the injury bug struck. Tyler broke his leg in a playoff game during his senior year of high school in 2006 and has struggled to get off the medical table ever since.
In 2008, his first full season, Tyler showed flashes of greatness against Notre Dame (58 yards on seven rushes in the fourth quarter) and Washington (85 yards on 16 carries), but momentum has always been a huge problem for the 230-pound bowling ball. A toe sprain in the Ohio State game last season required surgery and ended any chance of a potential breakout in 2009.
This season, Tyler sits atop the Trojans' depth chart (at least for Thursday night’s game) due in large part to the aforementioned injury to Bradford. And while he may have some fans reaching for their media guides this week, rest assure No. 26 will be all over your TV this season.
What he lacks in first-step speed, Tyler quickly makes up with the sheer force with which he hits the hole, and he is bound to surprise you with the breakaway speed he has displayed on multiple occasions this offseason.
Dillon Baxter (Freshman)
If ever this stable of backs needed a poster child for speed, Baxter would be more than happy to oblige. He is the ring leader of the unit in that department -- we've all seen the Reggie Bush-esque run he pulled off in spring practice.
There is no doubt the young tailback needs work on and off the field -- his marijuana usage and recruiting lies are a testament to that -- but the 2010 Max Preps Player of the Year has burners that make Tom Hanks look of pedestrian speed in "Forrest Gump."
Baxter is capable of spectacular runs. But in addition to his ability to elicit oohs and ahs from the peanut gallery, this kid flat out has a knack for running the football.
His running style needs polish, and his awareness skills are inconsistent at best, but Baxter has a rare, nay uncanny, aptitude for taking precise angles and beating defensive backs and linebackers with the sort of quickness and agility you just can’t teach.
He'll likely spend a lot of time on the pine, but the San Diego phenom should get PT on special teams and as a third down option.
C.J. Gable (RS Senior)
Yes, it appears Gable is as forgotten in this preview as he was in Pete Carroll’s offensive gameplan last season.
After a tremendous 2008 season in which he provided a spark to the tune of 617 yards in the Trojans’ three-back rotation, the pride of Sylmar High School had a falling out with the former USC coach and, frankly, it showed -- both in terms of his time on the field and the energy with which he played.
With Kiffin at the helm, it appeared the experienced Gable might actually have a shot to win the starting position during fall camp, but Gable will likely spend his senior season relegated to kick returning duties and the occasional third down run.
At 6-foot,, 205 pounds, he is seemingly the ideal change-of pace-option, but USC's depth leaves him the odd man out for the second straight year.
The problem of running back depth is one of the few Kiffin will happily welcome going into his first season. The combination of Bradford and Tyler, along with the gamechanging dynamicism of Baxter, will help take pressure off of sophomore quarterback Matt Barkley and a young receiving corps.
This list neglects to detail the past, present and future exploits of redshirt sophomore Curtis McNeal and redshirt senior Stanley Havili (who will be used much more as a passing threat than as a go-to runner this season), but it is merely because, as Hall of Famer Yogi Berra once astutely noted, “We have deep depth.”
To reach staff writer Dave Dulberg, click here.