LOS ANGELES -- When a university has had as much running back tradition and success as the University of Southern California, there’s also going to be interest in the running backs coach, a major focal point when former Washington Huskies head coach Steve Sarkisian was named the new USC head coach in early December.
Naming a new running backs coach wasn’t really a challenge for Sarkisian. He simply brought with him from the University of Washington former Huskies running backs coach Johnny Nansen, 39, who grew up in Long Beach and calls his return to the Southland “a dream come true.”
The real challenge for Nansen was restoring the credibility of former USC running backs coach Tommie Robinson, who in just one season had gained a tremendous amount of admiration, respect and love from the Trojans running backs. When Robinson wasn’t retained by Sarkisian and was later hired at the University of Texas under new Longhorns coach Charlie Strong, there appeared to be a rather large credibility gap.
Nansen’s credibility strictly as a running backs coach might not be his biggest issue. After all, in 2013, Nansen mentored UW All-American, Doak Walker finalist and first-team All-Pac-12 running back Bishop Sankey, who was among the nation’s leading rushers.
No, Nansen’s real challenge is gaining the trust and interpersonal relationships that flourished under Robinson, especially with a former fourth-stringer named Javorius Allen, who became the Trojans’ 2013 team MVP under Robinson’s guidance.
So how does Nansen plan to go about selling himself to Allen and his running back mates and repairing their broken hearts after Robinson’s departure?
“Obviously, you have to get to know the players and spend some time with them,” Nansen said. “They have to understand your philosophy. We’re all different coaches in what we believe in. The kids have to buy into your philosophy, and that’s really where you start off at.”
Ah, yes, a new running backs philosophy. There is, however, the old saying that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But Nansen thinks he can present a philosophy that will help in the coaching transition.
“It’s about having fun and having the kids believe in the little things you teach, not only on the football field but outside of the field,” Nansen said. “I think once they understand and grasp that, you’ll see them starting to perform at a high level, which is expected here at SC.”
Upon officially assuming the role of running backs coach, Nansen knew he had to bridge the gap with Allen. “Buck” was admittedly stung by the departure of not only his mentor Robinson but also former interim head coach Ed Orgeron, who gave Robinson the OK to play Allen extensively and the rest, of course, is history.
After the Trojans’ exhilarating victory over Fresno State in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl, Allen admittedly gave some serious thought into entering the NFL draft. However, gaining his diploma, increasing his marketability, getting some good advice, and giving Nansen a chance eventually won out, and No. 37 will return in 2014.
“Man, he’s a unique kid and I love him,” Nansen said. “Since I’ve taken over this job, he’s been around and we’ve spent a lot of time together. I am fired up. I did get to watch the bowl game, and he’s a special player.”
By no means has Nansen forgotten the other talented running backs he will instruct come spring ball in early March. One such talent is freshman Justin Davis, who is recovering from ankle surgery.
“I know Justin real well,” Nansen said. “We recruited him when we were at Washington. He’s a great young man and comes from a great family. He’s a hard worker and a very talented back. He’s very similar to a back I had a year ago at Washington in Bishop Sankey.”
Nansen also will have at his disposal the likes of gifted sophomore Tre Madden, a power back who’s also coming off the injury list. When healthy, Madden has repeatedly shown signs of physical dominance. Then there is also junior speedster D.J. Morgan, who also has given glimpses of explosiveness when he, too, hasn’t been in the infirmary.
There had been fears that fullbacks Soma Vainuku and Jahleel Pinner might be passť in Sarkisian’s up-tempo, no-huddle, shotgun offense. Both Nansen and Sarkisian recently said that they have great respect for Vainuku and Pinner, and there will still be a vital place for the fullback in the Trojans’ 2014 offensive system.
Ah, yes, the new system. Just how difficult will it be for Nansen’s backs to learn the new system, even though, according to Sarkisian, it’s still a run-first, power-oriented attack?
“I don’t think the system has changed from what they have done here,” Nansen said. “It’s the verbiage that we’ve changed. We were talking with the players yesterday, and they were picking it up and rolling with it. I am looking forward to it.”
And so, eagerly, are Trojans fans, expecting Nansen to maintain the tradition and expectations at storied Tailback U.