- Johnny Curren, WeAreSC, Reporter
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With the Trojans hard at work in the weight room and on the field again this June, here’s a look at some of the offseason storylines surrounding a position group that appears to possess a much greater level of talent and depth than it did this past season -- the USC running back corps.
Physicality is key
While the USC offense did put up some impressive numbers throughout much of the 2012 season, it also sputtered at times, due in part to a game-plan that placed a dramatic emphasis on the passing attack. With the Trojans compiling 461 passing attempts compared to just 392 rushes, the ground game appeared to lose much of its trademark physicality, and USC ran for an average of just 150.6 yards per game -- the No. 71 mark in the FBS.
Fast forward to the spring, and USC head coach Lane Kiffin made no secret of the fact that a major priority was to bring the power-run game back as part of what could potentially be a more balanced offense in 2013 -- with a particular focus directed at the running backs and offensive line. With a new position coach leading them through their paces in Tommie Robinson, the running backs appeared to run with a renewed sense of physicality, and virtually every member of the rotation upped their level of play. Whether or not this change in philosophy carries on into the fall remains to be seen. But if this spring was any indication, the USC running backs could be on the cusp of making a real statement in 2013.
Great expectations for Redd
Figuring to lead the way for the USC tailback group will be senior Silas Redd. Arriving on campus as a transfer from Penn State just prior to the start of fall camp last August, he made a lightning-quick transition and finished the 2012 campaign as the team’s leading rusher with 905 yards and nine touchdowns. And while his spring was cut short due to a torn meniscus in his knee, with what he did show in the little time that he was able to work out, there’s every reason to believe that he’s primed for an even bigger 2013 season. Equally as important, he’s a veteran leader with a blue-collar work ethic who gained the respect of his teammates right off the bat upon his arrival, and he’s sure to aid in the progression of the running back corps as a whole.
No shortage of talent
While Redd is the headliner of the unit, thanks to some standout play by a few other tailbacks who took advantage of his absence this spring, he doesn’t quite have the starting job locked up just yet.
Early-entrant freshman Justin Davis, in particular, was a revelation. Showcasing a tough north-south rushing style, he wowed onlookers with his play on a daily basis, and he was rewarded with a spot atop the post-spring depth chart alongside Redd and redshirt sophomore Tre Madden. Madden, who returned to practice in a limited capacity after missing the 2012 season with a torn ACL, showed no ill effects of the injury, and the 6-foot-1, 220 pound athlete certainly appears ready to give the USC offense its best example of a pure power back.
Behind those three, redshirt junior D.J. Morgan arguably looked the best that he has in a Trojans uniform, showing impressive speed and explosiveness at times, while redshirt sophomore Javorius “Buck” Allen -- a virtual non-factor his first two years on campus -- showed vast improvement, something he attributes to having the playbook down pat for the first time.
And then there’s freshman Ty Isaac, who just arrived on campus. Standing 6-3 and 215 pounds, he gives this unit a completely different look as a hulking physical presence with a ton of athleticism to boot, and he could possibly also factor into the discussion here.
With so much talent and depth at the position compared to the situation in 2012 -- when the Trojans had just four active tailbacks on scholarship -- the increased level of competition figures to continue to bring out the best in everyone. And if it ultimately does just that, it’s safe to say that the Trojans’ offense will be in good hands regardless of who it is that gets the bulk of the carries.
Two-headed monster taking shape at FB
One player who certainly didn’t have any trouble adjusting to the increased physical nature of USC’s practices this spring was the team’s primary starter at fullback in 2012, redshirt sophomore Soma Vainuku. As smash-mouth as you can get, he’s made a name for himself as an imposing lead blocker for the Trojans. But with Vainuku going down with a PCL injury in his knee in the second week, it was the performance by sophomore Jahleel Pinner that turned into one of the major stories of the spring. The running back unit’s most improved player of the entire slate of March and April practices according to Robinson, the Mission Viejo (Calif.) product asserted himself as a more-than-capable performer at the position. As a result, when the post-spring depth chart was released, he wound up sharing the starting title with Vainuku.
With the Trojans now apparently possessing a pair of standout options at fullback, with Simione Vehikite also adding depth, the team appears to be in good shape at the spot, but there is still room for growth. Because while Vainuku and Pinner have established themselves as efficient blockers, neither has made a significant impact in terms of their offensive numbers just yet. In fact, Kiffin noted on more than one occasion this past spring that he wants to see more production from a position that amassed a total of just 26 yards on the ground and 50 yards through the air (all by Vainuku) in 2012. If either Vainuku or Pinner can eventually step into that role this fall as a potential offensive threat coming out of the backfield, it would add a whole new dimension to the USC offense.