USC running back Curtis McNeal breaks into the Washongton secondary for… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)
USC was once celebrated as Tailback U.
Now, after recent player movement, it might be more aptly dubbed Tailback Who's Left?
USC's backfield, already thinned by Amir Carlisle's transfer last week, will be even less crowded when the Trojans open spring practice in March.
George Farmer, moved from receiver to running back last season, is returning to receiver, leaving the Trojans with only three scholarship tailbacks.
"We made a decision to move George solely back to receiver," Coach Lane Kiffin said Thursday, "and we are extremely excited about his impact this season at receiver catching the ball from Matt Barkley."
The 6-foot-1, 205-pound Farmer was regarded as one of the nation's top receiver prospects when he arrived from Gardena Serra High last summer. But it was freshman Marqise Lee, another Serra alumnus, who emerged to start opposite Robert Woods (a third former Serra star) to form one of college football's top receiving tandems.
Farmer was slowed by injuries in training camp and appeared on track to redshirt until Kiffin moved him to tailback at midseason. He played in four games, carrying five times for 15 yards, but has said that he preferred playing receiver.
Farmer's return to receiver means the Trojans will have only two smallish tailbacks with college game experience.
Senior Curtis McNeal, 5 feet 7 and 180 pounds, started the last four games and finished the season with a team-best 1,005 yards rushing and six touchdowns.
Third-year sophomore D.J. Morgan started the first two games but lost his opportunity after fumbling. The 5-10, 190-pound Morgan finished with 163 yards in 42 carries.
Javorious Allen redshirted last season. At 6-1 and 205 pounds, he fits the big-back profile embodied last season by Marc Tyler but is unproven.
Asked whether he were concerned about depth at the position, Kiffin said, "We look forward to continuing to develop our running back group this spring."
The group would have been larger if Kiffin had not dismissed Dillon Baxter from the team in October and if Carlisle had not left for Notre Dame. Baxter, a junior, is reportedly considering a transfer to San Diego State.
USC's dearth of tailbacks is a stark contrast to 2007, when the Trojans opened training camp with 10 on the roster.
When McNeal arrived as a freshman in 2008, he was one of seven tailbacks. He said this week that the Trojans would have "the best tailback group in the nation" regardless of numbers.
"I guess you could say the more the better," he said, "but when you have more you have more upset people because you have a lot of guys not being used."
Nevertheless, Greg Biggins, assistant recruiting editor and West regional coordinator for ESPN, said Carlisle's transfer put the Trojans in a difficult position. USC, he said, had not made running back a recruiting priority this year. Now, the first day that high school players can sign national letters of intent —Feb. 1 — is looming.
The NCAA allows for a maximum of 85 scholarship players, but because of NCAA sanctions USC's roster cannot exceed 75 for the next three years. The Trojans can sign only 15 players each year, 10 fewer than the maximum.
"At this late point," Biggins said of the Trojans' chances of landing a tailback, "there are not a lot of guys out there unless they go after a guy already committed."
Meantime, Farmer's return to receiver solidifies a position that was thinned this week by the departures of fifth-year senior Brice Butler and third-year sophomore Kyle Prater.
Butler is transferring to San Diego State. Prater is reportedly considering Wisconsin, Northwestern and Illinois.
Senior defensive lineman Armond Armstead, redshirted last season because he was not medically cleared, also is a transfer candidate.
Kiffin has said that he and his staff are prepared to manage the transition to 75 scholarship players.
"We have had a very specific plan in place about how we're going to go about this," he said Thursday, declining to discuss details.
Kiffin, however, said that defensive backs T.J. Bryant and Patrick Hall were no longer part of the program.
Bryant, a senior, redshirted last season. He has been suspended from all team activities and will graduate this spring, Kiffin said. He could transfer to a non-Football Subdivision School and play this season.
Neither Bryant nor Hall, a third-year sophomore, could be reached for comment.
USC has added six players to the program since season's end. Kiffin announced last month that safety Gerald Bowman and defensive lineman Morgan Breslin, both junior college players, had signed with the Trojans. Linebacker Scott Starr and offensive lineman Chad Wheeler are early high school graduates who are enrolled for the spring semester, which began this week. The four count against USC's 2011 class.
Defensive lineman Devante Wilson, who was injured and did not attend USC last semester after signing a letter of intent last year, also is enrolled. Defensive back Josh Shaw, a transfer from Florida, arrived this week.
The departures and additions leave the Trojans with 67 scholarship players, though that number could change pending Armstead's situation and other possible departures or additions. If the Trojans sign 15 players next month, Kiffin and his staff will have more shuffling to do before training camp opens in August.