When all else fails, apparently, there's always Ryan Knight.
USC's senior tailback found himself back on top of the depth chart Tuesday.
Coach Larry Smith announced that Knight will start in the Trojans' nationally televised opener at Michigan State Monday night because No. 1 tailback Steven Webster, still nursing an ankle injury he suffered in a pick-up basketball game in July, won't be able to play enough to be effective as a starter.
"I would hope that our starter would play 70% of the time, and he's not ready to play 70% of the time," Smith said of Webster, a junior who has played in only one of USC's last 21 games because of injuries.
Webster, though, will play in the game, Smith said.
"We would like for him to play as much as he can handle," Smith said. "But we'll just have to wait and see. He's for sure a key person in our offense."
But the starter will be Knight, a strong but not particularly fast runner who led USC in rushing the last two seasons, although he has failed to live up to the expectations generated by his record-breaking career at Rubidoux High School in Riverside.
Knight, who has averaged only 3.8 yards a carry at USC, didn't exactly elicit a ringing endorsement from Smith, who hopes that Webster can eventually inject more speed into the Trojan offense.
Asked how Knight has looked in practice, Smith said that Knight has great work habits.
That's not likely to instill fear in the opposition.
"His big problem, I think, is consistency," Smith said. "And I think it's because he's a game player more than a practice player. He gives you 100%, but he'll come up with a missed assignment or two. Like in the scrimmage (last) Saturday. He had three busts and then, boom, he made a great run. It was an eight-yard goal line run that was super.
"He concentrates so hard that sometimes he puts too much pressure on himself. We're trying to get him to loosen up, ease up. Things will happen. Let it flow. Don't try to pressure it or push it."
Smith said that Knight is a strong inside runner.
"Where he gets in trouble is when he tries to run outside," Smith said. "He doesn't have the speed for it."
But with Webster on the mend, Aaron Emanuel suspended for a year and several promising freshmen still untested, Knight is all Smith has.
Larry Smith said that Steven Webster, who wore a cast on his left ankle for three weeks, has "progressed tremendously." At the start of practice 2 1/2 weeks ago, Smith said, "I wouldn't have given him a chance to play until the middle of the season." In a scrimmage last Saturday at UC Irvine, Webster carried 4 times for 5 yards and 1 touchdown. "He did nothing significant or flashy, but you could see each time he carried the football that he felt a little more comfortable," Smith said. . . . USC's last four coaches--Don Clark, John McKay, John Robinson and Ted Tollner--failed to win their first game as Trojan coach, and Smith lost his first games at Tulane and at Arizona.
USC went on to win national championships the last three times it played Michigan State--in 1967, when it faced a Spartan defensive back named Steve Garvey, 1972 and 1978. . . . The Trojans have won their last 16 games against Big Ten opponents, including 5 Rose Bowl victories, and 23 of 24. . . . Reserve center Tom Dabasinskas, who separated a shoulder two weeks ago, will not play against Michigan State, Smith said. . . . Smith said that freshman Quin Rodriguez will kick inside the 30-yard line. Beyond the 30, the kicking chores will be handled by Erik Affholter, who will also kick off and play about 35 to 40 plays a game at wide receiver.
Michigan State Coach George Perles, in a telephone hook-up, said the Labor Day matchup with USC will be a big event in Michigan, "where we have so many people involved in the business of laboring." . . . Playing on artificial turf at Michigan State will not be a disadvantage to the Trojans, Smith said. USC will practice on artificial turf Friday night at East Los Angeles College. . . . In an attempt to acclimate his team to the crowd noise at Spartan Stadium, which he called a "tough stadium," Smith said he probably will play loud music Saturday at practice. . . . Michigan State defensive end John Budde is the younger brother of former USC All-American Brad Budde.