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Bradford Becomes Man of Many Moves

The USC freshman is determined to make the most of his playing time after a frustrating journey from safety to tailback to fullback in his short career.

October 17, 2006|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

As football plays go, the wheel route is fairly basic: The fullback circles out of the backfield, drawing a linebacker in man-to-man coverage, looking over his shoulder for a pass.

For USC's Allen Bradford to score on that kind of play Saturday just didn't seem right.

He should have run a double-reverse or an option pass, something tricky, full of twists and turns.

If nothing else, his straightforward touchdown catch against Arizona State -- the first strike in what became a 28-21 victory at the Coliseum -- betrayed the zigzagging path his college career has taken.

In only a few months, the freshman has switched positions no less than four times. He scored against Arizona State from the fullback spot, a move he had resisted until a week ago.

"Everything happens for a reason," he said, adding, "It's been kind of frustrating."

Turmoil is nothing new to freshmen joining a major college program, trying to find their place on the roster, trying not to get lost in the mix. They worry about getting a fair shot and are often asked to switch positions for the good of the team.

Coach Pete Carroll said that fitting the right players into the right spots involves more than just telling them where to go.

"They've got to have that 'want to,' " Carroll said. "If they're playing somewhere because they have to, they might find some creative ways to fail."

Things began easily enough for Bradford, who arrived at USC as a Parade All-American linebacker and running back out of Colton High. His mind was set on playing safety, and that's where he started out.

Then tailback Chauncey Washington suffered a hamstring injury in training camp and, by domino effect, Bradford began a roller-coaster ride.

The Trojans lacked a big body among a group of smaller, quicker freshmen at tailback. At 6 feet, 230 pounds, Bradford fit the bill and was shifted to offense.

"It was a hard move," he said. "But I was able to cope."

His one-yard touchdown run in the opener at Arkansas might have signaled the start of something good, except Washington soon got healthy. By the second week of the season, Bradford was odd man out.

No carries against Nebraska. One against Arizona.

"That hurt the most," his father, Keith, said. "He didn't get a chance."

Around that time, USC began losing fullbacks to injury, one after another, and there was conjecture that Bradford might be asked to switch again. Two publications quoted him as saying he would refuse.

His high school coach advised him to get on the field any way possible. His father did not agree.

"In my eyes it's a waste," Keith Bradford said of his son playing fullback. "I'd rather see him running the ball."

By late September, still in limbo, Bradford went back to safety -- for a few days. He had moved around so much that he was dizzy.

Finally, he sought the advice of the one man he had yet to consult: Carroll.

The coach had remained patient, waiting for Bradford to figure things out. Now came time for a history lesson.

Marcus Allen had played fullback for USC before winning a Heisman Trophy at tailback. Ricky Bell had started as a blocker too.

More to the point, Bradford realized, "If I'm not playing fullback, I'm not on the field."

On the first day of practice for Arizona State, Bradford quietly lined up at fullback and caught a pass on the wheel route. Later, Carroll spoke with his father.

"Coach told me Allen might block some and they might send him out of the backfield for a pass," Keith Bradford recalled. "He's always told me the truth."

Last Saturday, less than five minutes into the game, Bradford lined up on the right side of the backfield and took off on a pass route. Arizona State linebacker Gerald Munns picked him up but it was a mismatch.

Slipping past larger, slower Munns, Bradford sprinted to the right corner of the end zone as quarterback John David Booty lofted the ball into his arms.

Bradford still insists he is more of a pass-catching back than a blocker, though he is working on that part. And he swears the move is temporary.

But for now he is a fullback and Saturday's touchdown seemed to settle all the tumult.

"When I saw the ball in the air, it was just like you see on TV," he said. "Everything slowed down, everyone was cheering and I caught it."

Simple as that.

david.wharton@latimes.com

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