USC Trojans: Tre Madden

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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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.
The upcoming spring practice sessions will be the first official opportunity for Steve Sarkisian and staff to view the players on the field, and the coaches have been clear that they want to see the players in action before determining certain position spots.

Here are five versatile players who could end up at different spots, depending on how things play out on the field:

[+] EnlargeSu'a Cravens
Ric Tapia/Icon SMIFreshman All-American Su'a Cravens could move up from safety to linebacker if necessary.
DB Josh Shaw: In 2013, it was clear the best thing for the USC defense was to have Shaw at corner. There were a lot of early-season issues with the pass defense that seemingly melted away once Shaw returned to corner for good but that was 2013. It remains to be seen if 2014 will mean Shaw is at corner because there is a good chance he will be needed at safety, too, particularly if Su'a Cravens moves to linebacker. With Kevon Seymour appearing set as one starting corner, the coaches may project someone like Adoree' Jackson as a possibility to work in at the other spot in the fall, which could free up Shaw to get a look at safety. There is also the need for a new slot corner with the departure of Dion Bailey.

DB Su’a Cravens: There has been a lot of message board chatter about the possibility of Cravens being put in the same type of outside linebacker/rover role that Shaq Thompson played in the Washington defense last season. Both have similar frames and unique athletic ability so it’s not a stretch to think the coaches might look at such a move. Cravens was a freshman All-American safety last season so you could always keep him at that spot if a switch doesn’t work out, but any move that gets Cravens closer to the line of scrimmage would seem to make sense.

DL J.R. Tavai: There aren’t too many defensive linemen who have shown the versatility of Tavai in his USC career, as he has seen time at defensive tackle, defensive end and stand-up outside linebacker. And he has done them all well. That’s a nice piece for the coaches to work with this spring, as they have a lot of open spots to fill up front and some good depth along the interior. It should allow them to be flexible with how they use Tavai.

OL Max Tuerk: In his two seasons at USC, Tuerk has started games at left tackle, left guard and right tackle and even had a brief tryout last spring at center. That’s a dream scenario for a coach when a guy, who is arguably your most talented o-lineman, can hold his own across the board. Right now Tuerk is scheduled to get his first look this spring at right tackle to replace three-year starter Kevin Graf, but with a new position coach in Tim Drevno, don’t rule out the possibility of multiple position looks for Tuerk, as the coaches search for the best combination of starters.

RB Tre Madden: I just want to be clear that I think Madden is a running back, and I don’t see him switching positions. However, for the sake of this conversation, what happens if the Trojans fall a bit short of what they are looking for at one of the linebacker spots? There is an abundance of tailbacks right now, and Madden showed the ability to start as a true freshman on defense. USC definitely isn't looking to move the guy who was picking up 100-yard games left and right to open the 2013 season, but it’s nice to know such a talented option is there, if needed.

Roundtable: Biggest noise in spring?

February, 27, 2014
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WeAreSC staffers give opinions on topics related to Trojans football:

Give your offensive and defensive "spring revelations," guys who will make the biggest noise in spring.

Garry Paskwietz: These are good times for the USC tailback spot. Buck Allen was the 2013 team MVP, and Tre Madden and Justin Davis were the darlings of the early part of the season. By the end of the year, however, you couldn’t help but notice the progress that Ty Isaac had made as well. Isaac combines a chiseled, big frame with a natural running style, and it wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see him really make a statement this spring.

My defensive revelation is more of a position group than an individual player. The need to replace George Uko along the interior of the line is critical, and the Trojans have some pretty good options. Delvon Simmons is eligible after sitting out last season as a transfer from Texas Tech. You can’t substitute experience, and Simmons has a year as a starter in the Big 12 under his belt. Kenny Bigelow redshirted last year and is ready to start showing why he was such a highly rated recruit coming out of high school. Claude Pelon offers another big, veteran body as a junior college transfer and then there is always the possibility of Greg Townsend, if he can stay healthy.

[+] Enlarge Delvon Simmons
John Albright/Icon SMIDelvon Simmons brings a year of experience from Texas Tech to USC.
Johnny Curren: With Marqise Lee off to the NFL, I really think that wide receiver Darreus Rogers has the potential to explode this spring. Possessing a unique combination of size, soft hands and big-play ability, he gained valuable experience in 2013 as the Trojans’ No. 3 receiver, hauling in 22 passes. I expect him to slide into the starting spot opposite Nelson Agholor and to take on a key role, particularly with USC going to more of an uptempo offense. From what he showed last season in somewhat limited action, he’s more than ready for the increase in responsibility.

I also wouldn’t be surprised to see Khaliel Rodgers potentially make a splash at center. I was extremely impressed with what I saw from him in practice last season, as well as in high school, and I think, given the opportunity this spring, he’ll succeed.

On the other side of the ball, I think Simmons is the big name to watch. At a hulking 6-foot-6 and 300 pounds, he’s another performer who impressed out on Brian Kennedy-Howard Jones Field on a daily basis last fall. With the added benefit of having started 13 games as a sophomore in 2012 at Texas Tech, he has the ability to step in right away and contribute with no adjustment period. He’ll challenge for the starting defensive end spot opposite Leonard Williams, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he lines up there when the Trojans open up the 2014 season. Linebackers Quinton Powell and Scott Starr are two more outstanding athletes who could make some noise this spring.

Greg Katz: Given that it’s a position of not only great need but of great interest, a spring revelation from this prospective will be redshirt freshman Rodgers, who has the size (6-3, 310) to be a dominant center. Playing in postseason all-star game competition coming out of high school, Rodgers really established himself as a prospect. Extremely physical and nasty at the point of attack, Rodgers can play two positions: center and guard. Because of the need at center, Rodgers will get every opportunity to show his stuff there, and it will be a revelation just how much potential this kid has to be outstanding. That said, there is still the leadership role of center and that will be one factor to monitor in his bid to be the starter.

The early loss of Uko leaves a real void and opportunity for somebody to step in and take that defensive tackle spot. There are enough candidates, but the one that will be a revelation will be Simmons, the former U.S. Army All-American. That "6-6, 300" is not some number put into a media guide. He has the necessary game experience and also had quality results playing as a true freshman with the Red Raiders. Keep an eye on this up-and-comer.

Spring position breakdown: RBs

February, 25, 2014
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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

Trojans are deep at tailback

February, 13, 2014
Feb 13
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After the fax machines stopped rolling and the ink was dry on national signing day, USC first-year head coach Steve Sarkisian, when discussing the merits of the 2014 recruiting class, made a point of stating that his staff intentionally did not recruit a running back.

Naturally, given the roster strength of the 2014 running back depth chart, this didn’t exactly come as a surprise. But it was recognition that of all those question marks heading into spring ball, the young men who carry the football aren’t an issue.

Sarkisian also reminded Trojans followers that despite the change in offensive formations, his philosophy on offense is to first having a power running game complemented by a balanced passing attack.

[+] EnlargeJavorius Allen
AP Photo/David ZalubowskiBuck Allen is poised to be the leading tailback for USC.
There’s no position more identified or glorified in college football than the USC running back, or “tailback” as it is commonly referred. Legendary USC Hall of Fame coach John McKay created the modern era Trojans running game philosophy with the spotlight on the tailback and things haven’t significantly changed over the decades.

During McKay’s tenure, he believed the best ball carrier should be given the ball repeatedly and justified it with such immortal quotes as “It’s [the ball’s] not heavy,” and “he [the tailback] doesn’t belong to a union.”

One look at the Trojans' 2014 tailback depth chart and it appears to be a proverbial embarrassment of riches. Of the tailbacks returning, each has already been given the opportunity to carry the ball and has shown through styles of their own that they could probably start for most universities in the country.

About the only thing that has separated this collection of standout tailbacks has been injuries. As one talented tailback went down in 2013, another took his place without much of a hiccup.

Sophomores Javorius “Buck” Allen and Tre Madden, freshmen Justin Davis and Ty Isaac, and junior D.J. Morgan all return in 2014. About the only thing that separates most them all at this point, besides the brilliance of Allen’s second half of the season, is rehabilitation from injuries sustained during last season.

The healthy spotlight returner heading into spring practice is Allen, the 2013 team MVP whose rise to the prestigious heights of a starting USC tailback was both remarkable and heartwarming.

Allen, who seemed buried in Lane Kiffin’s pecking order last season, was given a chance when Kiffin was fired after the Arizona State debacle. Ed Orgeron handed over the tailback decisions to former running backs coach Tommie Robinson, who thought Allen was the best option in a recommitted power-oriented offense.

Naturally, Sarkisian hasn’t said how he plans to use his assortment of tailbacks. Will it be one featured back like Sarkisian’s former All-American at the University of Washington, Bishop Sankey, or tailback by committee? This decision will be part of many spring ball questions to be answered, but the truth probably lies with the fact that the actual running back rotation order probably won’t be decided until fall practice, when there are more healthy bodies available for scrimmaging.

Unless there is a shocking development in spring, it’s likely that junior-to-be Allen, who will probably be named to some preseason All-Pac-12 lists, will head into fall camp as the Trojans No. 1 running back. However, Sarkisian and running backs coach Johnny Nansen need to show some semblance of credibility when they say all positions are open, which should bring out the best in all the available tailbacks in the spring.

And since the Trojans didn’t recruit a tailback in the class of 2014, those potential running back recruits for the class of 2015 will also be paying close attention to how Sarkisian and Nansen use their backs this season.

So, the implementation of the new- or old-school philosophy of the USC tailback under Sarkisian is just a plethora of spring handoffs away, and it begs an answer to a tantalizing question: Is Sark a one-tailback, “old school” professor, or is he a multi-tailbacks, “new school” professor when it comes to Tailback U?

Roundtable: 2014 running back rotation

January, 22, 2014
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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?

2013 review: USC offense 

December, 24, 2013
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With a new starting quarterback at the helm, a slew of injuries depleting an already thin depth chart and a highly publicized coaching carousel, the production of the USC offense was largely up and down in 2013 with the Trojans averaging a pedestrian 29.7 points per game, while converting just 35 percent on third-down plays.

Still, part of a USC squad that finished 10-4, this is a unit that made strides throughout the course of the season. It’s safe to say that it certainly had more than its share of shining moments.

Quarterback

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LOS ANGELES -- After showing promise in limited action throughout USC’s first nine games, freshman tailback Ty Isaac received the chance to contribute on a much grander scale this past weekend and responded with a breakout performance.

Thrust into the expanded role when starter Silas Redd went out early against California with a knee injury, Isaac was able to get in the flow of a game for the first time as a Trojan, racking up 87 yards and two touchdowns on 11 carries.

[+] EnlargeTy Isaac
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsFreshman Ty Isaac made his first contributions as a Trojan by scoring his first touchdowns in USC's win over Cal.
“I just kind of got to relax,” Isaac said following USC’s practice on Tuesday, “and the offensive line was doing a really good job in opening up some holes for me, so everything worked out.”

Standing 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds, Isaac gives the Trojans a unique option as a physical back with deceptive speed, and his arrat of talents was on full display against the Golden Bears, with the highlight coming on a thrilling 37-yard touchdown dash in the fourth quarter in which he outraced a host of California defenders.

“Really, I was just trying to get a first down,” Isaac said of the long scoring run. “I was able to run in space, and when I saw daylight, I wanted it.”

Teaming with the hottest hand in the USC offensive backfield right now, Javorius Allen, Isaac helped the Trojans amass 256 yards on the ground in a 62-28 victory.

It was a banner day for players up and down the USC roster, but for Isaac, a Joliet (Ill.) Catholic product whose parents made the trek from Illinois to Berkeley to see him play in person, his attention-grabbing outing was particularly gratifying, especially with the game on national television.

“There were a lot of people texting me, congratulating me … a lot of friends and family from back home,” said Isaac, who has accumulated 144 yards on the ground in 2013. “It felt really good.”

And with a strong effort now under his belt, there’s reason to believe that Isaac’s friends and family might have more to cheer about in the future, but he’s not about to let his recent success get to his head.

“Definitely for confidence it helps you out, because now you know you can do it in a game against other people,” Isaac said, “but it just makes me want to continue to work hard in practice with my teammates.”

Isaac’s emergence is a boon for a tailback corps that has been hit hard by injuries, although his progression hasn’t come without challenges.

Arriving on campus this summer after a storied high school career in which he rushed for a total of 5,305 yards out of a prolific double-wing attack, Isaac had some difficulties early on as he made the switch from wingback to tailback in USC’s intricate pro-style scheme.

“It was a shock to the system,” Isaac said. “I ran about five plays in high school, and now I’ve got five different reads on one play, so that was definitely something that I had to adjust to.”

Through determination, hard work, and a fair amount of help along the way, Isaac has now made what appears to be a complete transition, and it’s had a profound influence on his ability to step in and produce.

“I’m in my playbook and I know my stuff a lot better, so that has had an impact,” Isaac said. “I’m a better player all-around, tenfold. Just playing against one of the best defenses in the country every day, it’s definitely made me a better player, and then just being around all of these older guys who have helped me out, as well as the coaches.”

With the status of Redd and Tre Madden still up in the air, all signs point to Isaac being asked to combine with Allen once again to carry a large portion of the load this Saturday, when USC faces No. 4 Stanford at the Coliseum.

An imposing squad featuring an aggressive defense that ranks No. 9 nationally against the run, the Cardinal present a stiff challenge for Isaac and Co. to deal with. But, as he explained, the Trojans have made a concerted effort to avoid getting caught up in the hype this week, instead focusing their efforts on sticking to the game-plan that has helped them compile a record of 4-1 under interim coach Ed Orgeron.

“I’ve seen them on film, and I respect them as a team,” Isaac said. “Obviously, they’re a really good, physical team, but at the same time we’re going to treat it as another game in the season, and we’ll continue to do what we’ve been doing.”

And with the young freshman having now proven himself in a game setting, the Trojans appear to have a new weapon to count on as they look to continue their winning ways this weekend – which is what it’s all about for Isaac.

“I just want to keep it rolling, and it’s a one-game season, every game," Isaac said. "I could not score another touchdown or gain another yard, as long as we’re still winning, I’m good.”

Planning for success: USC

November, 14, 2013
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Ed Orgeron didn’t waste any time in getting to the heart of USC’s matchup against Stanford on Saturday.

“This is gonna be a line of scrimmage game,” the interim head coach said after the Trojans practice on Tuesday.

There’s no secret about what the Cardinal are looking to do these days. They are going to line up on offense and run the football behind a talented and aggressive offensive line, while often employing additional linemen or tight ends to supplement their blocking efforts. The Stanford defense is particularly strong against the run, as it gives up less than 100 rushing yards per game.

[+] EnlargeStanford Cardinals
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezThe sight of Stanford celebrating has been familiar to USC fans, as the Cardinal have won four in a row and five out of six against the Trojans.
The emphasis on a physical identity from the Cardinal -- which started under Jim Harbaugh and has continued with David Shaw -- also coincides with a stretch of good fortune against the Trojans. Stanford has won four in a row against USC and five of the last six. For the Trojans to avoid a fifth straight loss there is no getting around the fact that they will need to win the battles on the line of scrimmage, and that isn’t something which has been easy to do against the Cardinal lately.

On offense, the Cardinal are very efficient, if not overwhelming. They average 32 points per game (No. 7 in the Pac-12) and are No. 11 in the conference with 388 total yards per game. They do average 205 yards on the ground each game -- No. 4 in the conference -- and only give up a nation-leading three tackles for loss per game. The Cardinal have only given up nine sacks on the season.

The Trojans will counter with a strong defensive front that is among the top 25 nationally in sacks (3.1 per game) and tackles for loss (7.1 per game). One of the keys for USC all season has been the play of defensive end Leonard Williams along the interior of the line. Williams is second on the team in tackles (56) and leads the Trojans in tackles for loss with 11 but has been hampered by a shoulder injury that caused him to sit out the California game last week.

USC is already without the services of Morgan Breslin, one of the leading pass rushers in the nation, who is out for the season with a hip injury, so depth could be a concern in such a physical contest. J.R. Tavai has proven to be a versatile reserve who could sub in for either Breslin or Williams as needed. Devon Kennard has been a steady force all year at the OLB spot opposite Breslin, leading the Trojans with eight sacks.

Things don’t get any easier for the Trojans on offense when facing the Cardinal defensive line. Stanford leads the Pac-12 in giving up only 98.7 rushing yards on the ground per game and is also stingy in scoring defense (19.4 points per game) and total defense (348.8 yards per game), ranking in the top 20 of the nation in both categories.

Stanford is also missing a key defender, as defensive end Ben Gardner is out for the season with an arm injury, but there is still plenty of talent. OLB Trent Murphy leads the Pac-12 in sacks (10) and tackles for loss (14), while defensive end Henry Anderson returned last week after missing six weeks with an injury.

While Stanford is very tough to run against, the Trojans will look to get balance while relying on Javorius Allen and Ty Isaac, as Silas Redd and Tre Madden are questionable due to injury. What is known is that all the scholarship wide receivers are available and all the tight ends got practice time this week. Look for the Trojans to keep the tight ends in a lot to help with pass protection while taking some shots with Marqise Lee and Nelson Agholor in the passing game.

There might be some big plays with Lee and Agholor, or with Stanford WR Ty Montgomery, but that’s not where this game will be won. It will be won in the trenches, at the line of scrimmage. The Trojans know that and Stanford knows that. Now it’s just a matter of hitting the field on Saturday to see who can get the job done.

Five Trojans who have stepped up

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As the Trojans continue to battle injuries while they prepare for the final stretch of the 2013 season, here are 5 players who have stepped up when called upon due to injuries to other players at their position.

[+] EnlargeDarreus Rogers
Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY SportsAfter missing a few games with injury, USC wideout Darreus Rogers has caught 12 passes in his last three games.
RB Buck Allen: There is no bigger example of a player rising up and playing a key role than what Allen did last week in the win over Oregon State. There were flashes from Allen earlier in the season -- as well as his solid performance in fall camp -- but it was still a pleasant surprise for USC fans to see him get 16 carries for 133 yards and three touchdowns in such a critical game. With Justin Davis out for the season with ankle surgery and Tre Madden battling hamstring issues, the Trojans might be relying on a whole lot more from Buck in the coming weeks.

WR Darreus Rogers: The freshman wide receiver had injury issues of his own early in the season but got healthy just as Marqise Lee and Nelson Agholor both were hurting as well. In a two-game stretch against Notre Dame and Utah, Rogers had 11 catches for 122 yards and was a reliable mid-range target.

TE’s Nathan Guertler: Through the first three years of his career, Guertler was a little-used walk-on offensive lineman who was known for his rugged style of play. In recent weeks, however, the Trojans have found themselves with serious depth issues at tight end so Guertler has thrown on a new jersey with a tight end number and played well against Oregon State as an extra blocker.

OLB J.R. Tavai: After beginning this season as a backup to Leonard Williams at defensive end, Tavai was moved to outside linebacker when Morgan Breslin went down with a hip injury. Tavai responded with a pair of double-digit tackle games with his usual relentless motor and strength. It shouldn’t be a surprise to see Tavai have such success considering he has played both inside and outside on the line in his USC career, but it is still a bonus for the Trojans to have a player who can move seamlessly between both spots.

DB Demetrius Wright: The Trojans came into the season with great depth at safety but it has been tested with the move of Josh Shaw to corner, the redshirt season for Gerald Bowman and various injury issues for Dion Bailey and Su’a Cravens. Wright has stepped in as an experienced reserve and provided steady play along with some big hits. Interim coach Ed Orgeron has mentioned Wright multiple times as a key contributor in recent weeks.

Tuesday mailbag: Can Mac get it done?

November, 5, 2013
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Just cause it’s the mailbag doesn’t mean I mail it in.

Trojan Nation in (Downtown LA) writes: For the mailbag ... Kevin! You picked USC to lose against Oregon State. You Picked USC to lose against Utah. When are you going to show us Trojans some love and admit that we're a good football team with great talent who are WINNING despite going through what no other college team in college football has to. Would any other team in college football be doing as well as SC is if it had the same restriction put unfairly upon them??? I think not!

[+] EnlargeEd Orgeron
Steve Dykes/Getty ImagesEd Orgeron's Trojans have managed to overcome plenty of obstacles this season.
Kevin Gemmell: I did, and I did. But I’ll say the same thing to you that I said to the ASU fan who berated my Washington pick a couple of weeks ago: Where were the mailbag notes thanking me for my support when I picked USC over Notre Dame and Washington State or Utah State? Though I will admit, your note was far more polite and playful, which is appreciated.

Color me egg-faced, because you’re right, USC is doing some pretty incredible things considering the roller coaster ride the program has been on with the sanctions and the coaching change and the injuries it has sustained.

When it comes to close games, I tend to lean toward the home team. And given USC’s lack of recent success in Corvallis, I took the best data I had available and made a decision. I was wrong. Ted was right, so a tip of the cap to him.

What impressed me most about USC was the power running game. Getting Silas Redd back has obviously helped, but Justin Davis goes down, Tre Madden exits and Buck Allen steps in and absolutely throttles Oregon State. Say this for USC’s depth, it’s bad in a lot of places, but it’s freaking awesome at tailback.

Now the Trojans are 3-1 since the coaching change, playing inspired defense and pushing people around on the lines. So yes, you are a good football team with great talent who is winning.

I’m not sure what to expect from USC down the stretch. But here’s a spoiler alert, I’m going to go out on a limb and pick you guys this week.


Ryan in New York writes: Kevin, Nice article on the new coach at CU. I wish them well this weekend and for the rest of the season. Snarky and spiteful? Ouch. I'll try and get back to my playful self. Let's be clear: I don't love UCLA, but Jim Mora's done a nice job and has handled himself admirably. I just think the media loves to over-hype sometimes, and given the Bruins' most impressive performances have been close losses, I do believe they need to win a meaningful game to earn so much praise. Keep up the good work and give your partner-in-crime a shout out, too.

Kevin Gemmell: This is why Ryan is one of my favorite mailbaggers. He flew off the handle a bit last week. I called him on it and had to reel him back in. And he comes right back with another note. The dedication is appreciated.

First, thanks for the kudos on the Mike MacIntyre story. I know the wins and losses aren’t there. And I don’t think anyone expected a massive swing in the win column in just one season. But he’s a proven rebuilder and recruiter, and I think he’s got the program moving in the right direction.

Regarding UCLA, I still consider the win in Nebraska to be a meaningful game. Not just because of the tragic circumstances that led up to it, but simply for how explosive UCLA looked in that second half when everything was clicking. We got a glimpse of a team with remarkable offensive and defensive potential and saw firsthand that when it’s clicking, it can hang with anybody.

Now, it wasn’t clicking the past couple of weeks, and it clicked off and on against Colorado. A lot of that has to do with youth and injuries.

Right now ASU looks like the team to beat in the South. But I’m not banking on anything in this final month. With USC yet to play UCLA, and the Bruins and Sun Devils yet to play Arizona, a lot can, and probably will, happen.


Mahalo in Honolulu writes: Hey Kevin, most of us Buff fans are happy with the new coach, yet are still skeptical on the outlook for the future -- primarily because of recruiting. High school kids don't have any memory of the glory days, the facilities are bleh, and the product on the field is, well, you know. What would you do to sell CU to the kids that can come here and help Mac build the Buffs to a contender?

Kevin Gemmell: Your skepticism is valid. You’ve been jilted a few times over the past five or six years.

I don’t know Mike MacIntyre as well as I do some of the other coaches. We’ve met a few times and speak on the phone every week during the teleconference. And for the story last week, he was gracious with his time and gave me an extended phone interview.

But there is a sense when talking to the man that he’s going to at least get the program back to respectability or go down with the ship trying. He’s a no-excuses guy. His pedigree is phenomenal, and there is no question about his dedication to the program.

That’s what you sell. You buy into the man, not the facilities or the school’s record 25 years ago. Take, for example, linebacker Addison Gillam. He had committed to MacIntyre at San Jose State. And when Mac changed to Colorado, Gillam followed. Here’s a young man who had a chance to go to an 11-win team, ranked in the Top 25 and moving into the Mountain West, a very respected non-AQ conference. But he followed MacIntyre because he believes in the man and the vision. He wants to be a part of something special -- building up a program from scratch and restoring it.

There is something admirable about that. And I think that’s MacIntyre’s greatest asset in recruiting.

And though the wins aren’t there yet, I think we definitely see a fiery, competitive team on the field. One playing with much more confidence than we’ve seen the past couple of seasons.


Daniel in Pittsburg writes: Hey Kevin, as a diehard Stanford fan and family member, I'm curious to know what your projected BCS standings would be if Stanford beats Oregon? I would also like to know if a Baylor victory would also play a role? Thanks Kevin.

[+] EnlargeKevin Hogan
Steve Dykes/Getty ImagesEven if Stanford and Kevin Hogan beat Oregon, the Cardinal may need help from some other teams.
Kevin Gemmell: Everything plays a role. A butterfly flaps its wings in Uzbekistan and the Colley Matrix blue screens.

I think Stanford would still need help, even if it beat Oregon, for the obvious reason that there are still undefeated teams in front of the Cardinal. If Florida State and Ohio State were to lose, then we could see the Cardinal jump into that No. 2 spot if they were to beat Oregon. And if Alabama loses, obviously the rest of the field moves up. So Stanford’s best chance is to beat Oregon and hope for an assist from a Syracuse or Florida, an Indiana or a Michigan, or an LSU or Auburn.

Assuming everyone else wins, Stanford beating Oregon would further supplant Florida State as the No. 2 team and strengthen Ohio State even more as one of the few undefeated teams. Perhaps Stanford gets a couple of No. 2 or No. 3 votes in either of the human polls, but I’m not sure voters would spring them over an Ohio State team that hasn’t lost in almost two seasons.

As for Baylor, I think it would enjoy a nice bump if it beat No. 10 Oklahoma. But I don’t think it would be enough to vault the Bears over Stanford if the Cardinal beat Oregon. If Stanford loses, it’s moot, because it will drop. If Baylor loses, it’s moot, because the Bears will drop. Both teams need to win to keep pace, and I think Stanford’s win would be viewed as more significant, so I don’t see Baylor jumping the Cardinal.


Joe Bruin in Westwood writes: Hey Kev ... Joe Bruin here. As a fan (and a mascot), I seem to be a little too worried about my team, especially after the games against Stanford and Oregon. I concur with Coach Mora when he said the team seemed to have a "hangover" from those games. Is it just me, or did the win against Colorado not look too impressive? Should I be worried about this team? Or will the Bruins get back in the swing of things?

Kevin Gemmell: I’d be concerned about this game coming up. The Bruins haven’t won in Tucson since 2003, Karl Dorrell’s first season, and Ka’Deem Carey is obviously one of the nation’s most elite playmakers. I know a lot of focus is on the Nov. 23 date with Arizona State -- and rightfully so -- but the Bruins still have a couple of tough tests in Arizona and Washington before that showdown.

However, Brett Hundley actually turned in the best quarterback performance of the week, per ESPN’s Adjusted QBR rating (note, adjusted reflects opponent’s strength).

Here’s the other side of it. As I said earlier, Colorado is a better team than it was last fall so give those guys a little credit for coming in and not being intimidated.

I think Colorado provided a nice little test (when was the last time we typed that?) for UCLA to knock off some of the rust from the back-to-back losses. The Bruins figured a few things out, and the offensive line got some more experience.

And Mora has shown that he can rally the troops when they are down. And I wouldn’t call the Bruins down right now. I’d just say they have a tough November ahead of them.
As the Trojans bask in the glow of the victory in Corvallis, there are many areas of their performance that deserve celebrating.

It was the most complete game that USC has played in years. The defense did a great job against the top statistical passing game in the nation, including three interceptions, which was the total that Oregon State quarterback Sean Mannion had coming into the game. The offense had tremendous balance with 242 yards rushing and 247 yards passing. It was the best play calling yet from Clay Helton.

[+] EnlargeSean Mannion
Steve Conner/Icon SMIThe USC defense made things difficult for Sean Mannion and the high-scoring Oregon State offense.

As important as anything, however, was the way in which the Trojans physically dominated on both sides of the ball. For a team that has struggled with injuries and has thrilled in recent weeks to take any win no matter how it happened, this game was one to enjoy for its physical beauty.

It was somewhat unexpected too.

The Trojans defensive front had been solid coming into the game but they were without leading sack-man Morgan Breslin and Mannion had proven to be tough to rattle. Not only did the Trojans get two sacks but they added nine pressures in addition to the critical interceptions -- two of them at or near the end zone -- and they also held Mannion and leading receiver Brandin Cooks well below their nation-leading averages.

The Trojans offensive line had been in a state of flux after an injury to Kevin Graf resulted in three players seeing time at new positions. USC was also limited at tight end. Regular starter Xavier Grimble tried to go but for most of the game it ended up being walk-in tackle Nathan Guertler filling in and doing a very commendable job in the blocking department.

The USC running game was coming off a net 30-yard performance the week before against Utah and it was clear early on against the Beavers that leading rusher Tre Madden was not going to be available due to injury. Not a problem for Silas Redd and Buck Allen.

Redd set the tone with his physical runs gaining big chunks of yardage. Then Allen would spring in and use his combination of speed and slashing ability to keep things going.

There was no better example of what kind of day this was going to be for the Trojans on the ground than early in the second quarter after Oregon State had pulled to a 14-14 tie. It was the kind of moment when you need to rely on the run game to settle things down. The Trojans went on a 10-play drive -- eight of them on the ground -- to score what would prove to be the game-winning points.

More importantly, it was the kind of drive where the Trojans realized they could impose their will. Momentum had been completely on the side of the Beavers at the start of the drive but the Trojans stole it right back with a physical ball-control drive.

For the second time this season, the Trojans also saw the emergence of a two-headed weapon at tailback. Early in the year it was Madden and true freshman Justin Davis but now, thanks to injuries to both, the opportunity has been presented to Redd and Allen and both took advantage on Friday night.

As the Trojans continue to ride this wave of emotion under interim coach Ed Orgeron, this latest physical performance can only offer encouragement for what is possible in the coming weeks. The next game offers an opponent that is struggling and an opportunity for USC to get back more bodies from the injured list. If the Trojans can build upon what took place in Corvallis, you never know what might be in store for this team in the final stretch of the season
Javorious Allen, Caleb Saulo Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsJavorius "Buck" Allen wasn't stopped Friday, as the sophomore ran for 133 yards and three TDs as USC defeated Oregon State 31-14 for its first win in Corvallis, Ore., since 2004.
The “Buck” doesn’t stop here.

And now, all of a sudden, maybe Ed Orgeron doesn’t, either.

Javorius “Buck” Allen, the sophomore who’d been the forgotten tailback in the first few weeks of this weird, emotional season, rushed for 133 yards and three touchdowns to lead USC to its most impressive and complete victory in at least two years on Friday night.

Allen and Silas Redd rumbled through Oregon State’s bright orange at will, Marqise Lee returned to revitalize the passing game and Devon Kennard and the defense shut down Sean Mannion and one of the country’s most prolific passing attacks on their way to a 31-14 upset over the Beavers.

So much for the pit that Reser Stadium is supposed to be, huh?

Give most of the credit to Orgeron, the huge, teddy bear of an interim head coach who is doing everything in his power to wipe the word ‘interim’ off his title. He has re-energized a team that was spiraling down the depths toward a full-blown depression after Arizona State dropped 62 in what turned out to be Lane Kiffin’s last game.

Look around, the Trojans are having fun again. They’re playing loose on the field and flashing some frisky dance moves on the sidelines.

They’ve earned the right. And maybe Orgeron is earning something, too. He is 3-1 since taking over, only a couple of makeable field goals against Notre Dame away from being 4-0. He is 3-0 in the Pac-12 and, suddenly, USC (6-3 overall, 3-2 Pac-12) is a legitimate contender to win the South Division and get to the conference title game.

The 6-3 Trojans have undermanned California and shaky Colorado still left on the schedule. Oh yeah, then there are those two home games against Stanford and UCLA.

Well, let’s say Orgeron wins the two games in which he’ll be heavily favored and somehow manages to split the Stanford/UCLA duo. Considering the circumstances, that would give USC a more than respectable 9-4 record and mean that “Coach O,” as the kids like to call him, would be 6-2 as the head guy.

If you’re a real Trojans optimist and want to fantasize victories over both Stanford and UCLA, then suddenly the record gets to 10-3, 7-1 for Orgeron.

If that somehow happened, USC athletic director Pat Haden would be hard pressed to overlook Orgeron for the full-time job, even over a coach with a more glamorous name.


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