USC Trojans: Javorius Allen

As the Trojans continue their supposed search for an offensive identity, it's becoming more and more clear that the identity is being revealed in the form of Buck Allen.

[+] EnlargeJavorius Allen
AP Photo/Rick ScuteriBuck Allen is turning out to be just the type of offensive playmaker the Trojans need this season.
If Steve Sarkisian wants an offense based upon run-first, physical football, why look anywhere else besides Allen, who has been the most consistent offensive performer for the Trojans this season. You want toughness? Throw on the film of his run in the fourth quarter last Saturday night where he basically carried a pair of Arizona defenders on his back for an additional 18 yards at the end of a run. You could do a lot worse as a coach than to have an identity based upon that kind of effort.

If you want to look at sheer production, Allen has rushed for over 100 yards in five of the six USC games, the only time he didn't hit the 100-yard mark was against Boston College, which also happened to be the only game he has carried the ball less than 20 times this year. His 781 rushing yards leads the Pac-12 and is No. 11 in the nation, and he has scored seven touchdowns while averaging 130.2 yards per game.

"I'm just trying to be an all-around back right now," said Allen, who set a career-high against Arizona with 205 rushing yards. "Coach Sark puts me in the right position to make plays and I'm just trying to make the best of it but it's not just me. I try to stay positive for the players around me, I want to make sure my teammates are feeding off my energy."

It's really only been a year since Allen emerged as a full-time member of the Trojans' backfield and his rise has been as quick as one of his slashing moves. In the last 12 games, Allen has surpassed the 100-yard mark nine times, and if he keeps this up it won't be long before he starts to emerge as more of a name on the national scene. Allen is on pace to rush for over 1,500 yards this season and the last time the Trojans had a running back put up those kind of numbers was Reggie Bush in 2005 with 1,740.

Allen prepared himself well for this role in the offseason by bulking up and becoming more of a vocal leader. He worked on his pass blocking and continues to be a very good receiver, he is currently No. 2 on the Trojans with 23 catches for 278 yards. He has emerged as the dependable option at a position that could have been a committee approach, but Tre Madden has been out with turf toe and Justin Davis has been steadily getting his form back after returning from a 2013 ankle injury.

"I see a very appreciative young man who has overcome a lot to get to this point," Sarkisian said of Allen. "I didn't know he was such a good receiver but I've always thought he was a guy who could hit that 1,500-yard rushing mark and head for post-season accolades. I'm thankful we have him."

An offensive identity built around Allen would also fit well with what is going on with the Trojans' offensive line, an inexperienced group that has been learning on the go, but one of the things they have improved on lately is run blocking. Over the past three games in particular there has been a commitment to running the ball in the second half that will help develop the mindset of what it takes to finish out games on the ground, and nothing is more important to that strategy than the presence of Allen in the center of those efforts.

"I think it's a case of our young kids on the line are starting to pick up the offense and Buck is trusting them more," USC running backs coach Johnny Nansen said. "Buck needs to continue building on that relationship and that will lead to more big runs from him in the future."
The Hail Mary pass at the end of the first half turned the game around. Maybe it also turned around USC's season.

The wildly unexpected, looping, 48-yard prayer of a spiral from Cody Kessler to Darreus Rogers in the end zone Saturday night changed the entire complexion of an otherwise sluggish evening. Instead of clinging to a 14-10 lead over Oregon State, the score suddenly expanded to 21-10, sucking all the energy out of Mike Riley's Beavers.

[+] EnlargeJavorius Allen
Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY SportsUSC's Javorius Allen rushes for 115 yards on 20 carries and one touchdown against Oregon State.
Buoyed by their surprising good fortune, Steve Sarkisian's Trojans seemed to relax in the second half, returning to the way they are supposed to play on offense, emphasizing a strong running game that opened up a passing attack highlighted by USC's entire stable of young, athletic receivers.

Perhaps most important, this was the Trojans' best defensive performance of the still early season. Certainly, it helped that they were playing a straight dropback passer in Sean Mannion. USC's defense always seems to play better when the opposing quarterback isn't a running threat.

Still, Mannion's credentials were imposing, and Su'a Cravens and friends made it a long, uncomfortable evening for him. For the first time this season, the pass rush was fierce. And Cravens was merely the best player on the field, coming up with an interception touchdown return and a sack while appearing to surround every Oregon State ball carrier on the way to that 35-10 blitz.

Makes you wonder how we'd all be viewing things Sunday if there hadn't been that unsightly blip in Boston two weeks ago. How bad a loss was that? Well, Boston College was last seen losing to Colorado State on Saturday. Yes, Colorado State.

So instead of 4-0 and climbing in the polls, the Trojans are 3-1 and hoping to sneak up a notch or two in the coming weeks. It could happen, because the Pac-12 has begun to look more than a little vulnerable.

Unbeaten Oregon has some gaping holes in its injury-marred offensive line. Stanford struggled mightily to beat Washington by a touchdown on Saturday. Arizona State coughed up 62 points to UCLA at home. Utah was beaten by Washington State. And Cal and Colorado played a ping-pong game of football, trading 14 touchdown passes in a 59-56 can-anyone-here-play-defense Bears' victory.

This is shaping up as one wide-open conference race, and USC's schedule gives it a decent shot to stay in the thick of it, particularly if it can find a way to improve against dual-threat quarterbacks.

Clearly, there were more than a few encouraging signs on Saturday.

Kessler, who still hasn't thrown an interception this season, continues to play effectively, if unspectacularly, at quarterback. He takes what the defense gives him, and it usually gives him plenty once the Trojans' running game establishes itself. It took a while on Saturday, but Javorius Allen eventually slipped it into gear, perhaps motivated by fellow tailback Justin Davis' finest game of the season.

Craven has developed into a monster hybrid safety/linebacker. The young offensive line bounced back nicely. Leonard Williams, seemingly 100 percent healthy, looked as imposing as ever in the defensive line, and if freshman Adoree' Jackson isn't already one of the best cornerbacks in the Pac-12, he soon will be.

Next up is Arizona State, and much will depend on the condition of quarterback Taylor Kelly, last seen on crutches watching his Sun Devils get chewed up by Brett Hundley, Ishmael Adams and the Bruins on Thursday night. If his injured foot can heal enough to allow him to play in the Coliseum, Arizona State's chances obviously are enhanced.

Even then, though, it would seem Kelly would be limited to throwing. He's not likely to do much running on a foot that is still healing.

USC and its new-found momentum will be favored either way, just as the Trojans are once again likely to be favored in every remaining game on their schedule leading up to those two potential November blockbusters against UCLA and Notre Dame.

Funny how, in the wake of one unexpected play, outlooks can change so swiftly.

Hail Mary, indeed.

USC storylines at Boston College 

September, 12, 2014
Sep 12
2:30
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Here are five storylines for the USC Trojans against Boston College on Saturday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN).

WeAreSC Roundtable: Stanford preview 

September, 3, 2014
Sep 3
11:00
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WeAreSC staffers discuss topics relating to USC's game at Stanford on Saturday.

Key to the game


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Roundtable: Most important offensive stat

June, 5, 2014
Jun 5
11:00
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The Trojans will be using an up-tempo offense for the first time this season. What will be the most notable statistic to keep an eye on from the offense in 2014?

Garry Paskwietz: Rushing yardage. I don’t think there is any number from the Washington offense last season that jumps out to me more than the school record 1,870 rushing yards produced by Bishop Sankey. To put it in perspective for USC fans, the last time the Trojans had a running back beat that number was Marcus Allen in 1981. New coach Steve Sarkisian has promised a run-first approach to his offense, and with Buck Allen, Tre Madden and Justin Davis at his disposal, it’s easy to think that he will be able to deliver, provided the offensive line can do its job.

Johnny Curren: I think the stat that will jump out to most will be the sheer number of plays that the offense will run each game. As we saw this spring, the offense went at a lightning-quick pace, churning out up to 120 plays per practice session. For most onlookers who grew accustomed to viewing Lane Kiffin’s slower, more methodical scheme, it certainly took some getting used to. Utilizing a similar up-tempo system at Washington, Sarkisian was able to run an average of 81 plays per game in 2013. In contrast, USC ran just 68.4 plays per game. If the Trojans can mirror what Washington did last season in this regard, that obviously means greater opportunities for USC’s playmakers to rack up what will hopefully be more yards, and more importantly, more points. It certainly worked that way for the Huskies. Washington finished last season ranked No. 13 in the FBS in total offense and No. 18 in scoring offense, well ahead of the Trojans in both categories.

Greg Katz: It should be the number of offensive plays run. Isn’t that one of the main selling points of Sarkisian’s offense? If you judge by what one saw in the spring, it’s safe to say that the number of plays this season compared to last season should go up significantly. Another unknown with the new no-huddle offense will be whether the scoring average per game this season significantly increases from last season.

The best of spring football at USC 

April, 23, 2014
Apr 23
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Here’s our look back at the Trojans’ progress during spring.

MVP

[+] EnlargeNelson Agholor
Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY SportsWill Nelson Agholor become the latest standout receiver at USC?
Garry Paskwietz: Nelson Agholor
Johnny Curren: Agholor
Greg Katz: Agholor, Hayes Pullard

Curren: From the start of spring ball to last Saturday’s finish no other player performed at such a sky-high level, and with such consistency, as Agholor. A practice didn’t ever seem to go by without the talented junior coming up with at least one highlight catch that caught everyone’s attention. An already solid player heading into the spring, he got even better and appears poised to take his place as the next great USC wide receiver.

Biggest surprise

GP: Zach Banner
JC: Scott Starr
GK: Banner

Katz: It has to be redshirt freshman offensive right tackle Zach Banner, who came out of nowhere -- thanks to the wonders of hip surgery -- to claim the starting position. He probably surprised not only his teammates with his newfound agility but himself as well. Still a work in progress, he is not only turning into a grizzly bear on roller skates but potentially a future All-Pac-12 selection. When Banner is able to stay at pad level, it’s like a tsunami of human girth stream rolling a mismatched opponent.


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Video: USC running back Buck Allen

April, 18, 2014
Apr 18
2:00
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Kevin Gemmell talks with USC running back Buck Allen about the new coaching staff and uptempo offense.
USC junior fullback Jahleel Pinner hasn’t recorded a single carry up to this point in his career, but if the two most recent practice sessions of the spring are any indication, that just might change in the fall.

[+] EnlargeJahleel Pinner
Chris Williams/Icon SMIJahleel Pinner has seven career receptions -- and no rushes -- for the Trojans.
With the running back corps decimated by injuries, Pinner has been relied upon heavily -- both at his normal fullback spot, where, with Soma Vainuku sidelined, he has served as the lone scholarship contributor, and at tailback, where he has split reps with Tre Madden and walk-on James Toland. And to the credit of Pinner, a part-time starter in 2013, he has seized the increased opportunity to make a strong statement with his play -- particularly on Saturday when he put together a string of impressive runs during the team’s full-pads workout in the Coliseum.

“You know, Jahleel is a unique player because he is a very smart football player -- he’s got a very high football IQ,” USC coach Steve Sarkisian said. “On a lot of those runs, he hadn’t even carried the ball ever leading up to that Saturday scrimmage, and he had a natural feel for running the ball where the ball was supposed to go, and then taking advantage when our defense was wrong, which is really how the running game works. When the defense is wrong, you have to take advantage of it, and he was in the right spot to do so.”

Of course, the fact that Pinner has looked at home toting the ball shouldn’t exactly come as a surprise. After all, he did see time at the position -- in addition to fullback -- as a high school standout at Orange County power Mission Viejo in California, amassing more than 1,500 yards on the ground over the course of his final two seasons, despite being hampered by an ankle injury as a senior.

With a rock-solid 5-foot-11, 240-pound frame, however, and a reputation as a punishing blocker, he has made a name for himself exclusively at fullback at USC, where his attributes have proven to be a perfect fit -- both in the Trojans’ prior offensive scheme, as well as in Sarkisian’s newly installed up-tempo, shotgun-based attack. Throw in the fact that talented tailbacks Javorius Allen, Justin Davis, Ty Isaac and D.J. Morgan are all due back in the fold in the future, and a permanent switch from fullback isn’t likely to be in the cards.

Still, with the versatility that Pinner has shown this spring, Sarkisian envisions Pinner potentially lining up at tailback on a situational basis for the Trojans in the fall.

“I don’t know if he’s ever going to be a feature back for us down the road, but he’s a guy that we know we can put him in, whether it’s in a short-yardage situation, a goal line situation, [or] late to close out a football game,” Sarkisian said. “He’s a guy that we can have trust in that he can go out and execute the offense from that position.”

For Pinner, who has more than enjoyed his time at tailback, that’s music to his ears.

“With this offense there’s going to be a lot of plays,” Pinner said “They’re not going to play just one running back all 120 plays you run per game or whatever, so we are going to be rotating backs just like we did last year. So, as long as I keep doing what I’m doing and playing hard, I’m going to get a shot in the games.”

And with that prospect of possibly taking on a larger role within the offense spurring him on, Pinner is determined to stay focused on the task at hand, all in an effort to continue in what has already been a productive spring.

“Every day is a golden opportunity here,” Pinner said. “I’m just trying to take advantage of every rep I get, and just trying to get better.”
LOS ANGELES – The first thought when seeing No. 29 enter Goux Gate and sprint onto USC's practice field is that he must be either a tight end or an H-back.

On the contrary, sophomore Ty Isaac is an extremely gifted running back, whose potential is nearly as big as his size, which is easy to pick out in the Trojans' new shotgun formation.

[+] EnlargeTy Isaac
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsTy Isaac rushed for 236 yards and two touchdowns as a freshman in 2013.
A chiseled, 240-pound player at 6-foot-2, Isaac’s physical appearance easily sticks out from other active spring running back teammates Javorius “Buck” Allen (6-1, 215) -- the Trojans' 2013 team MVP -- and Tre Madden (6-1, 220), the grandson of former Los Angeles Rams running back great Lawrence McCutcheon.

Compared to the competition, Isaac is also a completely different type of ball carrier and provides head coach Steve Sarkisian with unique options. There’s no question that once Isaac gets the ball in his hands, squares his pads and generates a head of steam, he’s one very difficult strider to bring down. You could say that his potential is as big as his two calves, which are like miniature tree trunks.

Isaac doesn’t just run, he rumbles. And don’t be deceived: He has the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield and go the distance.

A glimpse into Isaac’s promise was illustrated in last season’s Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl, when he ran for 44 yards in eight carries, including a dazzling 17-yard burst of power and speed. Eyebrows were raised even higher with a 35-yard pass reception, as the Trojans went on to a 45-20 rout of Fresno State.

Heading into spring ball with a new head coach, new running backs coach and a new offensive system, it figured that Isaac would use the first week of spring ball to quickly make a statement.

However, Sarkisian said a slight back issue slowed Isaac during that first week of spring practice and put him slightly behind both Allen and Madden.

After a week off to get well, thanks to spring break, Isaac, the former prep All-American out of Shorewood, Ill., and Joliet Catholic Academy, showed no outward signs of the back issue during Tuesday’s practice, which allowed him to move at the speed Sarkisian desires.

“It’s really fast,” said Isaac of the nonstop practice tempo. “For the most part, a lot of this stuff carried over from things we did last year. We’re obviously running it at a lot faster pace. Obviously it’s different terminology, but all the same plays.”

It’s this connection of the past and present offensive system that has helped players such as Isaac adjust to the offensive schemes of Sarkisian, but there are some adjustments.

“There’s a little bit of similarities from the past,” Isaac said. “It’s different coming across the quarterback. We didn’t do a lot of it last year, so it’s a little bit of an adjustment, but it’s not a big deal.”

Isaac saw considerable action last season as both a backup tailback and a member of the special teams. He appeared in all 14 games, running for 236 yards and averaging 5.9 yards per carry. If there was a highlight to his freshman season, it was at California, when he slashed and gashed the Golden Bears defense for 87 yards on 11 carries, which included two rushing touchdowns (4 and 37 yards).

Isaac's goal is to become a part of the running back rotation for 2014.

“I just feel I can improve overall and can get better,” Isaac said. “I feel like I could get better at pass-pro and seeing the field. Obviously being in the shotgun a lot this year gives a different view for a running back.”

One of the great fears of Trojans fans was whether this new offense would take away from the historically physical dominance of the Trojans' running game.

Isaac said followers of the Cardinal and Gold can put those fears to rest.

“We’re still going to pound teams, run the ball and pass when we have to, but it’s all at a way faster pace,” Isaac said. “We’ll constantly be attacking teams.”

There is fresh leadership in first-year running backs coach Johnny Nansen, who came south with Sarkisian from Washington.

“Man, he’s a good dude,” Isaac said of Nansen. “He’s getting us right and I like him a lot. He’s just getting us better as a group, teaching us this new playbook, and given us insights.”

And if Isaac has anything to do with it, he’ll give the Trojans backfield insight into becoming bigger and better, literally and figuratively.
You remember the three-headed monster, right? It's about returning production that will scare -- terrify! --opponents. Or not.

On offense, it's elite combinations at quarterback, running back and receiver.

On defense, it's elite combinations of a leading tackler, a leader in sacks and leader in interceptions.

[+] EnlargeKevon Seymour, Taylor Kelly
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesTaylor Kelly could have Arizona State's offense off and running this fall.
This year, we're breaking things down by division.

First up: South Division offense three-headed monsters.

There are two "pure" offensive three-headed monsters in the South: USC and Utah. Both welcome back their leading passer, rusher and receiver, though some fans might be surprised to know that Marqise Lee didn't lead the Trojans in receiving last season.

The biggest mystery team? Arizona, which is replacing its leading passer and rusher and has several wild cards who might challenge to be the first pass-catching option. Typically we'd project a starter, but the Wildcats seem to be completely wide open at QB and RB. So they get a "?" at both positions.

Otherwise, the projections of new starters aren't terribly unpredictable.

1. Arizona State

QB Taylor Kelly, RB D.J. Foster, WR Jaelen Strong

The skinny: If you were ranking three-headed monsters nationally, this might be a top-10 troika. You have a three-year starter at quarterback who passed for 3,635 yards and 28 TDs last year, a receiver who caught 75 passes for 1,122 yards and versatile running back who's dangerous as a runner or receiver.

2. UCLA

QB Brett Hundley, RB Jordan James, WR Devin Fuller

The skinny: Hundley starts the season as a top Heisman Trophy candidate. James started off great last year -- 116 yards rushing per game with a 6.3 yards per carry average in the first four games -- before getting hurt. While WR Shaq Evans is off to the NFL, Fuller leads a strong crew of returning receivers.

3. USC

QB Cody Kessler, RB Javorius Allen, WR Nelson Agholor

The skinny: This is a strong threesome, though some see Kessler being threatened by redshirt freshman Max Browne this spring. Allen surged in the second half of the 2013 season, when he rushed for most of his 785 yards (5.8 yards per carry), but the Trojans have a lot of depth at the position. Agholor is a frontrunner for first-team All-Pac-12 honors after catching 56 passes for 918 yards last year.

4. Utah

QB Travis Wilson, RB Bubba Poole, WR Dres Anderson

The skinny: If Wilson is cleared medically and is 100 percent full-go, he's got a chance to be a good QB, building on what he did while healthy in 2013. Poole is the Utes' leading returning rusher, though he could face a challenge from a handful of other backs, including redshirt freshman Troy McCormick and juco transfer Devontae Booker. Anderson will be joined by Kenneth Scott, who suffered a season-ending ankle injury in the 2013 opener.

5. Colorado

QB Sefo Liufau, RB Michael Adkins, WR Nelson Spruce

The skinny: Liufau was solid as a true freshman starter last year. He should be much better this fall. Adkins combined with Christian Powell to essentially split 1,000 yards rushing in 2013, with Powell offering the power option. Spruce was a solid No. 2 behind Paul Richardson last year, but it remains to be seen how he will perform as option No. 1.

6. Arizona

QB ?, RB ?, WR Austin Hill

The skinny: We honestly have no idea who will start at QB and RB next year, and the Pac-12 Blog believes that's probably not far from what Rich Rodriguez is thinking today. If we were going to go with complete conjecture at QB, we'd bet on a showdown between Texas transfer Connor Brewer and redshirt freshman Anu Solomon. Same thing at running back, where it seems likely a true or redshirt freshman replaces Ka'Deem Carey. Even Hill is a projection here based on his outstanding 2012 numbers, as he sat out last season with a knee injury. Sophomore Nate Phillips is the Wildcats' leading returning receiver.

What to expect from day 1 of spring ball 

March, 10, 2014
Mar 10
11:00
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LOS ANGELES -- Tuesday marks the beginning of the Steve Sarkisian era on Howard Jones/Brian Kennedy Fields. It will be a festive day and you expect the following on the opening of spring ball:

" While the rest of the nation attempts to thaw out, it will be 72 degrees and sunny in L.A., making the switch to Daylight Savings Time that much better. Did we mention shorts were the order of the day?

" Upon entering Goux Gate, new head coach Steve Sarkisian will have a smile on his face as wide as the distance from Seattle to Los Angeles.

" A fan will remark that Sarkisian never ages and looks more like an altar boy than a football coach.


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Spring position breakdown: RBs

February, 25, 2014
Feb 25
7:15
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Our look at position groups in the Pac-12 continues.

Arizona: With Ka'Deem Carey off to the NFL, figuring out Arizona's running back situation requires a bit of guesswork. Backups Daniel Jenkins and Kylan Butler are out of eligibility and rising junior Jared Baker tore his ACL in the regular-season finale. That leaves no running backs who had a carry last season. Those competing for carries will be redshirt freshmen Pierre Cormier and Zach Green, and true freshmen Jonathan Haden, an early enrollee, and Nick Wilson.

[+] EnlargeOregon/Texas
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesByron Marshall will be the Pac-12's leading returning rusher in 2014.
Arizona State: The torch was passed from Marion Grice to D.J. Foster toward the end of last season, and Foster will have a full offseason to prepare to be the No. 1 guy. He showed impressive flashes in spot playing time in the past two seasons, and ran for 318 yards (6.2 yards per carry) in three starts after Grice was lost to injury.

California: Much was made about Brendan Bigelow's talent during his career in Berkeley, but it never materialized the way many expected it would. He was beaten out by true freshman Khalfani Muhammad a year ago, then opted out of his final year of eligibility for a shot at the NFL -- and subsequently was not invited to the combine. Getting a feel for how coach Sonny Dykes would like to use his running backs is tough considering the lopsided nature of most of the games last year, but Muhammad showed all the signs that he would develop into a good Pac-12 running back.

Colorado: Christian Powell and Michael Adkins II will both be back after combining for 1,097 yards rushing in 2013. With receiver Paul Richardson off to the NFL, there's the need for added production on offense, and while coach Mike MacIntyre showed at San Jose State he'd prefer that to come through the air, it could add up to more opportunities for Powell and Adkins.

Oregon: Does it even matter who the Ducks hand the ball to? Sometimes it doesn't seem like it, but, regardless, Oregon remains loaded with speed and talent at running back. Byron Marshall (1,038 yards rushing) and Thomas Tyner (711 yards) will both see plenty of carries when quarterback Marcus Mariota (715 yards) isn't running on his own. The team does lose De'Anthony Thomas, who opted to leave early for the NFL, but Thomas turned into a relative afterthought last season anyway.

Oregon State: It shouldn't be hard to improve the Beavers' running game after they ranked 115th in the country in rushing yards per game last season. Their top two backs -- Terron Ward and Storm Woods -- return and figure to see more use under new offensive coordinator John Garrett. There was a glimpse of what could be against Boise State in the Sheraton Hawai'i Bowl as the Beavers unleashed a more balanced approach. Woods ran for 107 yards on 16 carries and Ward added 54 yards on nine carries in a comfortable 38-23 victory.

Stanford:The Cardinal's running back situation is outlined here in more detail, but it should be noted that the competition between Remound Wright, Barry J. Sanders and Ricky Seale -- competing to replace Tyler Gaffney -- will also include Kelsey Young. Young was recruited to Stanford to play running back, but was switched to receiver and is now back at running back. Sanders has the name recognition, but all signs point to Wright getting the first crack at being the primary back. However it plays out, it would be a complete shock if one back was used as much as Gaffney was in 2013 and Stepfan Taylor the two seasons before that.

UCLA: If things play out the way UCLA coach Jim Mora hopes they will, linebacker Myles Jack will be just that … a linebacker. After winning Pac-12 Offensive and Defensive Freshman of the Year, the Bruins would ideally keep him on defense. For that to happen, someone needs to step up. That conversation still includes Jordon James and Paul Perkins, while Craig Lee, a four-star recruit who redshirted last year, also factors into the equation.

[+] EnlargeJavorius Allen
AP Photo/David ZalubowskiBuck Allen will likely head up USC's running back committee next season.
USC: After watching Bishop Sankey turn into one of the nation's premier backs under the tutelage of new coach Steve Sarkisian, USC's deep stable of running backs has to be intrigued. The Trojans will return four of their top five leading rushers from a year ago -- Javorius "Buck" Allen, Tre Madden, Justin Davis, Ty Isaac -- when they were predominantly a run-first team. Allen, who was named the team MVP in 2013, figures to get the first crack at being the starter, but that could be just in name only as a running-back-by-committee scenario seems likely.

Utah: Another season, another new offensive coordinator for the Utes. This time it's Dave Christensen's job to invoke life in the Utah offense, which will return leading rusher Bubba Poole (607 yards) and Lucky Radley (284 yards). The Utes averaged just 4.1 yards a carry as a team last year, which is partially to blame for the change from Dennis Erickson to Christensen after just one year.

Washington: The NFL combine taught us that Bishop Sankey might have been the most physically gifted running back in the country last year. It's not as simple as plugging in another guy to replace him, but the Huskies are still in good shape. Senior Jesse Callier (48 carries, 213 yards in 2013), who was slated to be the starter before an ACL tear in the season opener in 2012, is intriguing and will compete with fellow senior Deontae Cooper (43 carries, 270 yards) and sophomore Dwayne Washington (27 carries, 332 yards).

Washington State: Considering quarterback Connor Halliday had three single-game passing totals that were more than leading rusher Marcus Mason ran for in entire season (429), any discussion about the Cougars' running game is tough to take seriously. Yes, there will still be running backs on the roster. No, they probably won't combine to run for 1,000 yards as a team.

Previous positions

Quarterback
We're looking at some of the top individual performances in the Pac-12 in 2013.

Up next: Nelson Aghol-oh my gosh he did it again.

Agholor
Agholor
Who and against whom: USC WR/PR Nelson Agholor had a monster special teams performance in the Trojans’ 62-28 win over California.

The numbers: The Trojans matched an NCAA record by returning three punts for touchdowns in the game. One came off a block, the other two were of the traditional variety with Agholor returning Cal’s first punt 75 yards for a touchdown. He did it again in the second quarter, this time from 93 yards out. He finished with 168 return yards (a healthy average of 84 yards per return) and added four catches for 35 yards.

A closer look: On Tuesday we honored Oregon’s Bralon Addison for returning a pair of punts for scores against Cal. It’s only fair to return the favor to Agholor. And Cal, if it feels like we’re beating up on your special teams a little bit, our apologies. But then again, stop giving up multiple returns for touchdowns in games. Buck Allen gets a tip of the cap as well for his 135 yards on six carries and two touchdowns (22.5 yards per carry … dang!). But it was Agholor who opened the scoring with a 75-yard punt return after the Trojans stopped Cal’s first drive. His second score came before the half with the Trojans already leading 35-14 (Josh Shaw had already returned a block punt for USC’s second special teams touchdown of the game). This one went for 93 yards to give the Trojans an insurmountable 41-14 lead at the break. The last team to return three punts for touchdowns was when Oklahoma's Antonio Perkins did it against UCLA in 2003.

Roundtable: 2014 running back rotation

January, 22, 2014
Jan 22
1:10
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One of the primary positions to watch this spring will be tailback, as the Trojans are deep in players looking to establish their spot in the rotation. How do you see the running back rotation playing out?

Garry Paskwietz: Despite the fact that new USC coach Steve Sarkisian has been pretty consistent in utilizing one primary back during his time at Washington, I think he will use more of a rotation system during the coming season. It’s not that I don’t think he has a back worthy of being a bell cow to carry a heavy load, it’s just that there are too many backs who can produce to leave them on the bench. One of the hallmarks of this offense is the uptempo style, and it could be a benefit to the Trojans to have a steady rotation all game long of fresh legs from the likes of Javorius "Buck" Allen, Tre Madden, Justin Davis, Ty Isaac and possibly even D.J. Morgan. While it’s always possible that Sarkisian could choose one as his primary back, the guess here is that a rotation system is used to take advantage of all that talent.

[+] EnlargeJavorius Allen
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesJavorius "Buck" Allen would appear to be the front-runner to be USC's top running back in 2014, but that won't stop other talented runners from staking a claim.
Johnny Curren: Any discussion about the USC tailbacks has to start with Allen, the Trojans’ team MVP in 2013. Unlike last season, when he landed the starting role almost by default midway through the schedule, he’s an established commodity now, and it was apparent in the way that running backs coach Johnny Nansen talked about him last week that the new staff thinks extremely highly of his abilities. A determined runner with great balance and athleticism, I think that he’ll stand atop the depth chart come the conclusion of fall camp, but it won’t come without a fight. People tend to forget that Madden rushed for more than 100 yards in four of the Trojans’ first five games this past season, and I’m anxious to see how he looks in the spring with a completely healthy hamstring.

The tailback that I thought showed the most promise at the beginning of 2013 was Davis. An explosive rusher with unique vision, his status is surely to be in doubt for the spring because of the broken ankle that he suffered against Notre Dame. If he’s 100 percent by the beginning of fall camp, however, he could emerge as Allen’s most formidable competitor. At 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds, Isaac gained some valuable experience this past season, and he certainly looks ready to contribute again in a reserve role. And then there’s Morgan. He’s shown glimpses of his big-play ability in the past, but he’s never had a chance to really get rolling because of injury. Even if he does come back healthy, it would appear as though he has a tough road ahead of him.

Greg Katz: The real underlying question might be just how do Sarkisian and new running backs coach Johnny Nansen see the rotation playing out? Are they going to have a one-back, two-back, or three-back rotation system, and does this new system help or hurt each back? Last season at Washington, they went exclusively with Bishop Sankey, and all he did was become an All-American and All-Pac-12 selection.

We know from last season that former Trojans running backs coach Tommie Robinson was able to expertly rotate his running backs, although it was made easier by a series of unfortunate injuries to Madden, Davis, and Morgan. All three should be ready to go at some level for spring ball.

The view from here is the favorite to start should be Allen, the 2013 team MVP. Allen has proved he can carry the load and he is a true home-run hitter. Assuming that Allen continues to get better, the real question is who or how many follow Allen? At various times, Madden and Davis looked outstanding until injuries cut their season short, and each of these two running backs also brings a different style of play.

The real dark horse in all this competition would appear to be Isaac after his late-season charge. He really showed flashes of brilliance, especially in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl. Why not Isaac?

So what is the order? Well, it starts Allem, then it’s anybody’s guess, depending on production and healthy bodies in the spring, which could also be affected by the state of the offensive line. The great unknown -- isn’t this what spring ball is all about?
The Trojans have the decisions of all the NFL draft-eligible players and it was a mixed bag of results, with five players choosing to stay and five players choosing to leave.

It was a strong finish to the process in recent days when Hayes Pullard, Josh Shaw and Buck Allen each made it known that they would be returning. That was welcome news to a team that was looking to withstand the final year of NCAA sanctions on a strong note, but those hopes had already taken a beating with the announcements from the players who decided to leave.

The fact that Marqise Lee was declaring for the draft was understandable and expected. The others, however, brought varying degrees of skepticism as all could have benefited from another year playing for the Trojans. Dion Bailey was probably the player next most ready to leave, and you can make an argument that he had shown what he needed to show at safety after two years spent playing out of position at linebacker.

Marcus Martin was a first-team all-conference selection at center this year, but he will be coming off an injury during the draft process. Martin will be selected, but he would have benefited from a second year of playing at center, having spent his first two years at left guard. George Uko made progress this year and would have seen his exposure rise in 2014 as he would have combined with Leonard Williams to form the most dominant interior defensive line combo in the country.

[+] EnlargeXavier Grimble
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillPerhaps tight end Xavier Grimble could have been a star in Steve Sarkisian's offense.
Xavier Grimble is the one departure that makes the least sense on paper. Grimble had a nice season in 2013 and is certainly a talented player, but he had a chance to come back for 2014 in a system that produced the Mackey Award winner last season. You have to imagine there was a lot of opportunity for Grimble to improve his stock with increased production.

Not only were all five of these departures talented players with a lot of experience, the Trojans cannot replace them because of NCAA scholarship limits that are part of the final year of sanctions related to the Reggie Bush case. USC is allowed to sign a maximum of 19 players this year – four early enrollees which count against last year and 15 new signees on LOI day – and that number does not change, no matter how many players leave for the draft.

So which players will get first shots at replacing the early NFL departees?

At wide receiver, Darreus Rogers figures to move into the starting spot vacated by Lee across from Nelson Agholor. Rogers doesn’t offer the explosive tendencies of Lee or Agholor, but he is a big-bodied guy who can work the middle of the field and the intermediate routes with great success. Don’t be surprised if his touches skyrocket next season. In terms of the next “big-play” receiver, look for Steven Mitchell to make a run for that spot when he returns from injury, along with George Farmer.

Randall Telfer will move into the full-time starting role at tight end that he used to share with Grimble. If Telfer can stay healthy, he is more than capable of putting up big reception numbers of his own. Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick should also get a chance to show what he can do in the passing game.

There are plenty of options to replace Uko in the middle of the line. Delvon Simmons transferred in from Texas Tech last year, and he is a wide body. Kenny Bigelow looks ready to show what all the hype was about in his recruiting process, while a guy like Greg Townsend could get in the mix as well, if healthy. And don’t forget Antwaun Woods -- he started at nose last year but could get moved around by the new staff. Claude Pelon figures in the rotation as well, assuming he gets academically qualified.

Su’a Cravens is a good bet to fill the productive role that Bailey departs, and that could mean more playing time for guys like Leon McQuay and Gerald Bowman. It will be interesting, of course, to see what the new staff does with Shaw, who has shown the ability to play either corner or safety.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Martin
Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY SportsMarcus Martin's spot at center might be the hardest to fill in 2014.
The toughest spot to fill could be at center. Martin made the move last year after the coaches had taken a look at Max Tuerk, a move that didn’t work at the time because of snap fumble issues. Does Tuerk get another shot? What about someone like Cyrus Hobbi or Khaliel Rodgers? Maybe Toa Lobendahn as an early enrollee gets a look during spring ball. Lots of options here, with no clear answer yet.

Even with the obvious issues that present themselves because of the departures, there is still much to be thankful for on the USC end with those who stayed.

Pullard was the biggest key. He’s the leader of the defense both emotionally and on the field, especially during this time of a transition to a new system. That’s when it becomes even more important to have a player like Pullard, a three-year starter who has led the team in tackles in two seasons. You can be sure the coaches breathed a big sigh of relief with the news that he was staying.

The decisions to stay were also huge by Allen and Shaw. There’s a reason Allen was named the team MVP despite being limited to spot duty in the first five games of the season. When given his opportunity, Allen provided the spark that the offense needed to create an explosive presence on the ground. Allen certainly wasn’t the only USC ball-carrier who had success last year, but there was something different about the way he did it. He could be a natural fit in the new system.

Shaw was such a stabilizing presence in 2013, and his move back to corner was as important as any in terms of the USC defense eventually taking the top spot in the conference rankings. It would have been a big step back for that unit if he had left. He returns as one of the more experienced players around.

Finally, Aundrey Walker headed into 2013 as an inconsistent left tackle, but as the year went along he developed into a promising right guard who was just starting to tap into his enormous potential. An injury in the season finale sparked talks that he might leave early, but he will stay to offer another returning starter to a Trojans offensive line that was already losing two starters from last year. It could be a chance for Walker to shine in 2014 with an offensive line coach coming from one of the NFL’s power running teams.

All in all, it could have been better and it could have been worse for the Trojans when it comes to NFL early departures. If there is a silver lining for USC fans, it is the fact that this is the final year of the sanctions, and soon there will be a day when the departures don’t hurt so much. At least now Steve Sarkisian and his staff know what kind of roster they will have returning for next year.

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