Oregon vs. USC: Which Pac 12 Power Has Best RB Depth?

Kyle Kensing@kensing45Contributor IJanuary 22, 2014

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Three yards and a cloud of dust? That's not the kind of run-based offense employed at Oregon or USC. 

New USC head coach Steve Sarkisian worked with one of the conference's 2013 All-American running backs, Bishop Sankey, and promised in his introductory press conference via USCTrojans.com that USC would be "a run-first team...predicated on speed and a power running game."  

Oregon's run-game credentials are impressive and go back several years. Under Chip Kelly's guidance, both as offensive coordinator and head coach, Oregon produced Jonathan Stewart, LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner.

EUGENE, OR - NOVEMBER 16: Running back Thomas Tyner #24 of the Oregon Ducks runs with the ball during the fourth quarter of the game against the Utah Utes at Autzen Stadium on November 16, 2013 in Eugene, Oregon. (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
Steve Dykes/Getty Images

First-year head coach Mark Helfrich continued the trend of an outstanding ground game, though, with the added twist of generously spreading the workload among multiple rushers. Four Ducks, three of whom were running backs, garnered more than 90 carries last season.     

Oregon and USC won't have the market on Pac-12 running backs cornered next season, but they are the majority shareholders. These are the two deepest units in the conference.  

The two units stack up well when compared to each other. There are similarities, but stark contrasts as well. USC favors a bigger back, evident in the size of its top ball-carriers in 2013.

Oregon's quick-strike version of the spread flourished last season with smaller backs. The offensive snaps Oregon's pace commands means more touches, and thus bigger numbers. 

Sarkisian is promising his own uptempo style at USC, though, after implementing a hurry-up offense at Washington with significant results. The cadre of talented running backs at USC will make Sarkisian's vision a more attainable reality. 

The 2013 Week 1 Starters  

Oregon: Byron Marshall

With do-everything multipurpose back De'Anthony Thomas in the fold and 5-star recruit Thomas Tyner joining the Ducks, overlooking Byron Marshall may have been easy.  But Marshall proved to be much more than a stop-gap between the ballyhooed Tyner and the All-American he was previously backup to, Barner. 

"Byron has unlimited potential—all the skills necessary to be a great back," Helfrich told The San Jose Mercury News before the season. 

Marshall met some of that potential, joining the Ducks' long line of 1,000-yard running backs.  

He's unlikely to take on a heavier workload.

In addition to its running back depth, Oregon also has dual-threat quarterback Marcus Mariota accounting for nearly 100 carries. Still, Marshall proved himself as a reliable first option. 

USC: Tre Madden

TEMPE, AZ - SEPTEMBER 28:  Running back Tre Madden #23 of the USC Trojans rushes the football against the Arizona State Sun Devils during the first quarter of the college football game at Sun Devil Stadium on September 28, 2013 in Tempe, Arizona.  (Photo
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Tre Madden's outstanding, individual performance in former head coach Lane Kiffin's swan song, a 62-41 loss at Arizona State, perfectly captured the tumultuous first month of USC's 2013 season. The Trojans uncharacteristically struggled as a team, but Madden was a shining bright spot.

That night, he rushed for 128 yards and a touchdown and caught two more scores. It was Madden's fourth game eclipsing the century mark, and third straight scoring at least one touchdown.  

A hamstring injury suffered midway through the season limited Madden's productivity in the season's second half—he carried the ball more than six times just once in the Trojans' final nine games—but his return to full strength gives Sarkisian two proven No. 1 backs. 

The Breakout Backs 

Oregon: Thomas Tyner

Much fanfare followed local recruiting prospect Tyner in his freshman season at Oregon, and he did not disappoint. Tyner established himself as a potential No. 1 back by season's end. 

The glimpse Tyner gave fans into his sky-high potential during November's Civil War may very well have been a prelude to a full-fledged star turn in 2014.  

USC: Buck Allen 

No individual player was perhaps more closely associated with USC's second-half turnaround than Buck Allen. Buried on the depth chart early in the season, Allen become the primary ball-carrier as injuries mounted.  

Necessity may have given Allen the ball, but he certainly ran with it. He was one of the Pac-12's most productive backs during the final month, rushing for at least 123 yards in four of the Trojans' five November games. 

His decision to put off the NFL draft for at least another year was a major coup for Sarkisian's offense in 2014. 

2013 Statistics for Returning Oregon RBs
PlayerRushing Attempts/YardsRushing TDReception/YardsReceiving TD
Byron Marshall168/10381413/1550
Thomas Tyner115/711914/1340
2013 Statistics for Returning USC RBs
PlayerCarries/YardsRushing TDReceptions/YardsReceiving TD
Buck Allen135/8351422/2522
Justin Davis53/36161/70
Ty Isaac40/23624/570
Tre Madden138/708315/2014

The Promising Youngsters 

Oregon: Kani Benoit, Royce Freeman and Tony James 

Headlining Oregon's 2014 recruiting class are running backs Royce Freeman and Tony James, both 4-star prospects according to 247Sports.com's composite ratings. They could be a thunder-and-lightning combination with the 6'0", 220-pound power back Freeman bringing a powerful style in goal-line and short yardage situations.  

James is a speedy all-purpose back who could integrate into a two-way role akin to Thomas, catching passes out of the backfield to spread out defensive coverage in addition to getting carries for a change of pace.   

Kani Benoit, a 3-star signee in Helfrich's 2013 recruiting class, redshirted. A year spent learning the offense and adjusting to the speed of the college game should translate to a reserve spot.  

USC: Justin Davis and Ty Isaac

Justin Davis and Ty Isaac were two of the standouts on USC's 2013 signing class, and both saw some action in their debut campaign.

An ankle injury cut Davis' season short. Prior to being sidelined, he showed off some potential as an explosive, speedier option to the more powerful style of ball-carriers like Madden and Allen. 

At 6'3", 225 pounds, Isaac is the biggest of USC's crop of big backs. But don't let his size fool you—Isaac has breakaway speed. He's also a capable receiver out of the backfield.


A valid argument for either of these units being the Pac-12's best can be made. 

USC's running backs enjoy the experience edge over Oregon, with all four primary ball-carriers of last season back for 2014. The Trojans also add D.J. Morgan, a veteran who has faced injury problems the past two years. With him healthy, the Trojans have five running backs with significant game experience. 

Most intriguing is that the 2013 season was only a sample of how good the Trojans' running back corps can be. Because of injuries, a combination of Allen and Madden was seen sparingly. A look of Davis and Allen was even more rare.

The potential for this to be one of the great USC backfields of all-time is there—and given what the position has meant to shaping USC's rich history, that's an especially high ceiling.   

Oregon's depth is dependent more on unproven potential: Freeman, James and Benoit obviously have no collegiate carries to their credit. However, with the proven one-two punch of Marshall and Tyner, the Ducks can stake a claim to having the Pac-12's best running back corps. 

Both groups are invaluable pieces to their respective team's championship puzzle. 


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