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A Backfield in Motion

USC's showcase position is in transition, but talent may compensate for youth, inexperience at tailback

August 19, 2003|Gary Klein | Times Staff Writer

The sage old USC running back stroked his stubble-covered chin and pondered the situation.

Hershel Dennis is 19. A sophomore. Yet, with fewer than 50 carries to his credit, he is the closest thing to a veteran among Trojan tailbacks.

Dennis said he was not threatened by freshmen Reggie Bush, LenDale White and Chauncey Washington, who arrived earlier this month as part of one of the nation's best recruiting classes. All are expected to contribute when eighth-ranked USC opens its season Aug. 30 at sixth-ranked Auburn.

"You can learn a lot by watching, and I did that last year," Dennis said. "But you also can learn by playing, and all of these guys are going to get a chance."

Kennedy Pola, who coaches USC's running backs, calls his tailbacks "the best young group I've ever been around," with emphasis on the "young."

"It's going to be cool to see the kids that can handle it and really excel because they have enough ability to," Coach Pete Carroll said. "It's going to be fun to watch."

Pola and Carroll acknowledge, however, that there will be growing pains.

Last season, Pola nurtured Dennis while motivating three tailbacks who finished their careers with 16 years of college experience. Malaefou MacKenzie was a sixth-year senior, Justin Fargas and Sultan McCullough fifth-year seniors. All three are prospering at NFL camps.

Now, Dennis is the backfield elder, having run for a grand total of 198 yards and one touchdown. Bush, White and Washington displayed flashes of brilliance through the first two weeks of training camp. They also were prone to freshman mistakes.

"I don't know how they're going to react" at Auburn, Pola said of the freshmen, "but hopefully with the competition level they have every day at practice, when it comes to game day they won't see a big difference at game speed."

Dennis got a glimpse last season after working most practices with the scout team. Against UCLA, he scored on a 38-yard run that was reminiscent of his often-spectacular play at Long Beach Poly High.

Dennis added 15 pounds of muscle to his 5-foot-11 frame during the off-season and reported at 190 pounds. He began training camp listed No. 1 on the depth chart and is maintaining his status, despite limited opportunities during scrimmages.

Taking a cue from the seniors he followed, he also is mentoring the freshmen.

"I'm just trying to help them prepare because I'm not a machine," Dennis said. "I'm going to need help throughout the season. Whenever someone gets tired or gets hurt, we have three other backs without skipping a beat."

Bush, 6 feet and 190 pounds, appears most likely to challenge Dennis for a starting role, and will figure prominently as a kick returner. After watching Bush elude USC's first-team defense for several long gains, Carroll said, "There aren't many people like that guy."

Bush, who missed four games because of a broken wrist, still rushed for nearly 1,700 yards last season at Helix High in La Mesa. He has displayed elusiveness and breakaway speed almost from the moment he stepped onto USC's practice field two weeks ago.

"That's the thing I like about this offense -- it's a speed offense," said Bush, who last year ran the 100 meters in 10.42 seconds, the fastest time in the state for a high school athlete.

Last week, Bush described himself as "a home-run hitter." Pola does not disagree.

"He's a finisher," Pola said. "You get him past the line, you better not leave your seat."

White, 6-2 and 225, runs with a more powerful style than Dennis or Bush, a style that helped him become Colorado's all-time high school rushing leader with 7,803 yards.

Though slowed recently by a sore hand, he has impressed with his toughness, especially his effort after absorbing initial hits.

"We all have our own styles," White said. "We all do what it takes. I'm a little bit bigger so I use that to my advantage."

Washington, 6-1 and 205, came in with the requisite credentials -- he rushed for more than 5,000 yards in three seasons at South Torrance High -- but has nonetheless surprised coaches with his pass-catching and running between the tackles.

"I'm power and speed and I have a little bit of shake," said Washington, who added that the starting job belonged to Dennis until someone took it away.

"He's going to have to make sure he doesn't slip or anything because we're right there right behind him," Washington said.

Pola said the freshmen could thank the NCAA for helping them make their initial push. New rules adopted this year to limit practice time and offset heat-related illnesses have changed the way USC handled training camp.

Instead of newcomers reporting a few days earlier, as they did in the past, they and the veterans reported at the same time. Veterans practiced in the morning, newcomers in the afternoon for the first four days.

"We're way ahead of the game right now because of that split practice," Pola said. "The freshmen got to see the older guys in the morning, then see film of the older guys, and then go out and do it themselves."

Dennis said the freshmen learned well.

"They all caught on quick," he said. "It's a good thing too, because we're going to need everybody when we go down to Auburn."

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

In the Running

A look at the USC running backs vying for time this season:

PLAYER: HERSHEL DENNIS

HEIGHT: 5-11

WEIGHT: 190

CLASS: Soph.

COMMENT: Superior speed and pass-catching ability.

*

PLAYER: REGGIE BUSH

HEIGHT: 6-0

WEIGHT: 190

CLASS: Fresh.

COMMENT: Flashy, breakaway threat in backfield and returning kicks.

*

PLAYER: LENDALE WHITE

HEIGHT: 6-2

WEIGHT: 225

CLASS: Fresh.

COMMENT: Power back always keeps his feet moving.

*

PLAYER: CHAUNCEY WASHINGTON

HEIGHT: 6-1

WEIGHT: 205

CLASS: Fresh.

COMMENT: Speed and power combination makes him multiple threat.

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