There is no doubt about it -- the USC running back corps has had an extremely productive spring. Even after last season’s leading rusher, Silas Redd, went down with a torn meniscus in his knee, others were quick to step up. Most notably, Javorius “Buck” Allen and freshman Justin Davis picked up the slack.
Still, if you ask running backs coach Tommie Robinson which player has made the most pronounced strides this spring, it’s not one of those highly regarded tailbacks. It’s a fullback -- Jahleel Pinner.
“Of all of the running backs -- the whole group -- I’m more proud of what this guy is doing than all of the long runs and all of that stuff,” Robinson said without hesitation. “Right now, he’s the unsung hero of the group.”
Coming off a freshman season that saw him garner significant playing time as the season wore on, Pinner has carried that momentum into this spring. With 2012 starter Soma Vainuku sidelined with a PCL injury since the team’s second scrimmage, he’s taken full advantage of the extended opportunity to make an impression.
“When Soma got hurt, I just realized that it’s my turn to show the coaches what I can do,” Pinner said. “I just got it in my mind that every play is a battle for me."
Standing 6-foot tall and weighing 238 pounds, Pinner has brought a perfect blend of physicality and athleticism to the fullback position this spring. More than anything, however, it’s his work ethic that has caught everyone’s attention. As one of only two healthy fullbacks on scholarship – along with recently converted linebacker Simione Vehikite -- the former Mission Viejo (Calif.) standout has been relied upon heavily, and he’s answered the call time and time again.
“The kid ran 65 snaps today, and that doesn’t include all of the other periods,” Robinson said following Tuesday’s practice. “Not one time did he say a word about getting tired. I’ve never practiced a kid to run that many snaps in a practice. He’s very unselfish, he’s doing an outstanding job and he never complains. He has a mentality where he just shuts up and goes to work.”
With that unwavering drive and determination, it’s no wonder Pinner has come so far in such a short period of time. In particular, it’s his growth in terms of understanding his role within the playbook and in reading defenses that he attributes most to his rapid improvement.
“I've come a long ways in the mental part of my game," Pinner said. "I know a lot more about what the defense is going to do with their blitzes, and what they're going to do based on their alignments. It’s definitely helped me on the field."
Still, Pinner isn’t a finished piece of work just yet. And with coach Lane Kiffin stressing the importance of getting more offensive production out of the fullback position, Pinner is more focused on that aspect of his game than ever.
“They’re putting me in the offense in little wrinkles here and there, so whatever they try to put me in, I’m going to go 100 percent,” Pinner said. “As a football player, you always want to prove yourself. And especially as a fullback, we don’t get as many chances as the tailbacks or receivers, so when I get the ball in my hands, I have to make the most of it.”
With Pinner’s mindset, not to mention his recent uptick in production, there’s reason to believe he might be making a case for more playing time next season. But as Robinson points out, there is a whole offseason, as well as fall camp to get through before thinking about that. But if Pinner does continue to work hard and develop, there is no denying he might have a very bright future ahead of him.
“Am I gaining confidence that I can put him out on the field, knowing that I don’t have to worry about him? Yes, I am,” Robinson said. “Does he have work to do? Yes, he does. But he’s getting there. This was his 13th practice, and we’ve got two more -- he has two more opportunities to get better before we head into the fall. He is growing up right before our eyes, and if he’ll continue to make that kind of progress every day, this kid is going to be all right.”