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Deep-six at USC

Tailback depth isn't an issue for Trojans, unless injuries hit like they did last year. But are there enough carries to go around?

August 17, 2008|Gary Klein | Times Staff Writer

So many tailbacks, so little urgency.

The season opener at Virginia is less than two weeks away, but USC's coaching staff is in no hurry to designate a starter or a firm rotation at tailback.

"As we found out last year -- a lot of this settles itself," offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian said.

USC opened its 2007 training camp with an almost embarrassing 10-deep list at tailback, and then watched as a transfer and injuries thinned the corps to, at one point, two players.

This year, for their Aug. 30 opener at Charlottesville, the Trojans expect to tote what the coaching staff views as a more-than-manageable six tailbacks competing for playing time.

Juniors Stafon Johnson and Allen Bradford, sophomores C.J. Gable and Joe McKnight and redshirt freshmen Broderick Green and Marc Tyler offer USC a variety of skill-sets and combinations. The challenge, once again, will be finding ways to deploy them and keep the peace.

Last season, Chauncey Washington made things easy for running backs coach Todd McNair. The fifth-year senior's talent and, perhaps more tellingly, his longevity in the program kept the younger backs from complaining about playing time.

"They deferred a lot because he was the big dog," McNair chuckled. "It makes it a little more difficult [this season]. . . . Hopefully we can find ways to make all of them happy."

Johnson is the Trojans' top returning runner, having rushed for 673 yards and nearly seven yards a carry last season. But the former Dorsey High star is all for spreading around the ball.

Johnson cites Auburn's Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown, USC's Reggie Bush and LenDale White and Arkansas' Darren McFadden and Felix Jones as recent backfield combinations that showed that NFL opportunity and riches await those who share carries.

"There's no such thing as one back anymore in the NFL or in college," Johnson said. "I have no problem with a two-to-three-back system because it gives you weapons to throw at a defense and it makes it easier.

"Spread it around and get everybody work."

McKnight could get the most because Coach Pete Carroll and Sarkisian plan to expand his role, especially as a receiver.

The sophomore from Louisiana reported for training camp weighing 200 pounds, 20 more than last year. More important, McKnight appears to have grasped a system that he struggled to master in his first season before his breakout performance in the Rose Bowl.

His most dynamic play, perhaps not coincidentally, came off a bobbled lateral against Illinois.

"We probably went too far, too fast with him and slowed down his [comfort level] in the games," Carroll said. "Once he got settled in you saw what he could do."

McKnight, who wears No. 4, is aware that he is constantly compared to a Trojans tailback who wore No. 5. And though his freshman statistics were similar to Bush's first-year performance, McKnight said his personal goal this season is to avoid turnovers -- "not let the ball touch the grass."

Gable is not content to simply regain a spot in the rotation after abdominal surgery forced him to redshirt last season. The sophomore from Sylmar has never been afraid to publicly state that he covets the starting job.

In 2006, Gable became the first true freshman to start an opener at tailback for USC. He also started the first two games last season.

Still, the confident Gable is all for the mystery of training camp.

"When you don't know, you just keep working hard," he said.

Bradford did all that and more during his first two seasons, becoming a special teams standout while pining for opportunities to carry the ball.

During spring practice, he showed he'd grasped the system and produced an electrifying, highlight-reel play nearly every workout. The trend has continued this month.

"[McNair] told me to do one real physical thing every day, so that's what I try to do," Bradford said.

Carroll has said that Green and Tyler are essentially starting over after redshirting as freshmen because of injuries.

Green appears recovered from the broken foot he suffered in a training camp scrimmage last year. Tyler says he has finally regained the cutting ability he has lacked since suffering a broken left leg during his senior year at Westlake Village Oaks Christian High.

Now that they are sound of body, they must be sound of mind.

"With these young guys, they have to get out of the mind-set that they have to defer to the other four," McNair said.

In Sarkisian's view, the Trojans will need every one of the six tailbacks. And there apparently will be no rush to judgment about the order or combinations in which they will be deployed against Virginia.

"We're fortunate that we have the talent and depth we have," Sarkisian said. "But we've got a long way to go to the first game."

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gary.klein@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

How they stack up

Times staff writer Gary Klein rates the six USC tailbacks in five categories:

SPEED

1. Joe McKnight

2. Allen Bradford

3. Stafon Johnson

4. C.J. Gable

5. Marc Tyler

6. Broderick Green

POWER

1. Allen Bradford

2. Broderick Green

3. C.J. Gable

4. Stafon Johnson

5. Marc Tyler

6. Joe McKnight

ELUSIVENESS

1. Joe McKnight

2. Stafon Johnson

3. C.J. Gable

4. Marc Tyler

5. Allen Bradford

6. Broderick Green

BLOCKING

1. C.J. Gable

2. Allen Bradford

3. Joe McKnight

4. Stafon Johnson

5. Marc Tyler

6. Broderick Green

RECEIVING

1. Joe McKnight

2. Allen Bradford

3. Marc Tyler

4. C.J. Gable

5. Stafon Johnson

6. Broderick Green

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