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A SHIFT AT TAILBACK : USC : Trojans Are Counting on Knight, Emanuel to Stay in Running

August 28, 1986|MAL FLORENCE | Times Staff Writer

Two of UCLA's talented tailbacks, Gaston Green and Eric Ball, are prominently displayed on the cover of a national magazine.

A caption says: "How about a two-headed Heisman?"

What's this, UCLA backs crowding into the turf of crosstown rival USC, which is renowned for its Heisman Trophy-winning tailbacks? Weren't Heisman winners Mike Garrett, O.J. Simpson, Charles White and Marcus Allen, as well as runners-up Anthony Davis and the late Ricky Bell, all Trojans?

Indeed they were, but USC has been out of the Heisman hunt since 1981, when Allen last won the award, and with Green and Ball getting most of the preseason publicity, the other tailbacks in town this year are USC's Ryan Knight and Aaron Emanuel.

There is a definite statistical correlation between the success of USC's teams over the years and the productivity of the tailbacks.

Although there are obviously other factors involved, there is reason to believe this season that the Trojans will go only as far as their tailbacks take them.

Knight, a junior, is aware of this responsibility. "For USC to win this year, the tailback has to be a dominant factor on the field," he said. "He has to take over."

Knight, 6-1 and 202, ranged up and down the depth chart last year. He was the No. 2 tailback behind Fred Crutcher at the outset of the season, slipped to No. 4 after injuring his ankle in the second game against Baylor, then became a starter for the last four games.

A highly touted prep star from Rubidoux High School in Riverside, Knight is No. 1 again as the team points to the season opener Sept. 13 against Illinois at the Coliseum.

Emanuel, a sturdily built sophomore who was regarded as a franchise player when he was recruited at Quartz Hill High last year, will share time with Knight.

Although he was hampered by injuries the entire 1985 season, Emanuel, 6-2 and 215, still managed to gain 472 yards while averaging 4.9 yards a carry, impressive figures considering that he was a raw freshman and was never completely healthy.

USC Coach Ted Tollner said that if one tailback becomes more productive than the other, playing time will be adjusted.

That suits Knight.

"Whoever performs the best should play the most," he said.

Knight was USC's leading rusher last year with 732 yards, but he averaged only 3.8 a carry, which is below USC's standard. The famous tailbacks of the past usually averaged about five yards.

A strong athlete, Knight worked on increasing his speed in the off-season. In fact, his entire running style was overhauled by Don Quarrie, the former USC gold-medal-winning Olympic sprinter.

"I have a better burst now, and my speed has definitely increased," Knight said. "My stride is longer, and my knees come up higher. Also, my takeoff is faster. I was recently timed in 4.5 seconds in back-to-back 40-yard dashes."

Frank Falks, USC assistant in charge of the running backs, said Knight is accelerating more quickly than in the past.

Knight is also trying to shake off a habit of dancing behind the line of scrimmage before slamming into a hole.

"He had a style of looking where he was going, instead of going," Falks said. "He was trying to make decisions, and and while doing that, he wasn't going anyplace. He has learned at this level of competition that he is not going to outrun many people going from sideline to sideline.

"Now I believe he is ready to make some long runs, which we didn't have last year."

Kennedy Pola, a fullback with knees scarred from operations, contributed USC's longest run last season--37 yards--and the Trojans averaged only 184.3 yards rushing in 12 games, far below the 262-yard average of the '70s and early '80s.

"A few big runs can make a difference in a ballgame, but there weren't many times we scored from way out," Falks said.

Emanuel has been called a wild stallion-type runner with raw power and some bad habits. He often held the ball in front of him with both hands, inviting defenders to jar it loose.

Falks said that Emanuel is working at protecting the ball, adding: "He now looks like the tailback we thought he could be, although he's got a ways to go before he comes to the front."

Emanuel was an overpowering runner in high school with 4,807 yards, 54 touchdowns and a 7.2-yard average.

But he wasn't in top condition coming into training camp last year. While straining to get in shape, he pulled a groin muscle early in training camp, then missed the first two games with a lower back bruise before spraining his left ankle in the fifth game against Washington State.

Even so, his 4.9 average was the highest by a USC runner with at least 95 carries since Allen averaged 5.6 in his Heisman Trophy season of 1981.

"I was coming into a big-time training program and didn't know what to expect and didn't do as much running as I should have," Emanuel said. "Now I know what is expected of me.

"I ran a lot this summer to get in good condition. I weigh 215 now, 10 pounds lighter than last year. I feel more comfortable at this weight. I can cut and slash a little more."

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