Searching For A Star Tailback at USC

Paul PeszkoSenior Writer IJune 1, 2009

PASADENA, CA - JANUARY 01:  Stafon Johnson #13 of the USC Trojans rushes the ball during the 95th Rose Bowl Game presented by Citi against the Penn State Nittany Lions at the Rose Bowl on January 1, 2009 in Pasadena, California. The Trojans defeated the Nittany Lions 38-24.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

There is the real world, and then there is the media’s version of the real world. Oftentimes, they are worlds apart.

So, I had to smile when asked to write an article on which running back at USC would emerge as the "bona fide star" in 2009. Maybe Pete Carroll should ditch his present system of stockpiling tailbacks and go with one or two to build confidence and establish a rhythm, right?

I can imagine Carroll shaking his head with a sarcastic grin. Rhythm? "It's never been a problem for us," Carroll has often said. "It's a problem for everyone else that they can't figure out why we do it that way."

Yes, it is a problem for everyone else, and that includes opposing coaches as well as sportswriters. And I’m sure Carroll relishes it that way.

Being a defensive-minded head coach, Carroll realizes the best way to give his offense an advantage is to keep the defense guessing.

If opposing coaches can look at game films and figure out the number of times, Stafon Johnson, for example, will carry the ball and where he is likely to run in given situations, they can adequately game plan.

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But how much harder is it to game plan when three or four tailbacks with somewhat different styles can be interchanged in the same down-and-distance situation?

When referring to the tailbacks at USC that are stacked up like airliners over LAX on Thanksgiving weekend; the media uses words like "committee" and "stable"

Carroll is right. They just don’t get it. USC’s tailbacks are not a committee or a stable. They are a system.

It’s a system that allows the USC offense to rotate different running backs in a variety of down-and-distance situations. Much like the rotations used in basketball, it keeps fresh running backs in a game even in the fourth quarter.

Of course, more running backs means less carries for each one, but it also means less chances for a back to break down over a 12-game season like your 30 carries per game, every down running back.

Lose him, and a team needs to rely on a player who has only seen very limited action if any at all. But that's not the case at USC.

Also the rotation system insures there are always experienced tailbacks ready to go should one of them get injured. And there’s no need to rush the rehab period.

More importantly, USC Football is all about the ball and all about competition. Each tailback knows he is a fumble or a missed assignment away from being in or out of a game. So, the system keeps them focused on competing during practice and staying involved in a game.

Now, if you throw into the mix the number of sets and personnel packages that USC uses including their stable - excuse the expression - of wide receivers, you can imagine the headaches that creates for defensive coordinators.

How do the tailbacks feel about the system? So far in three years, only two – Emmanuel Moody and Broderick Green—have transferred. After the Rose Bowl there was some discussion that a disgruntled C. J. Gable was considering the NFL draft.

Gable had been benched after a fumble on the first play against UCLA and then again after fumbling in the third quarter against Penn State. After the season, Pete Carroll and Gable sat down to talk over Gable’s frustration.

"I think he should be frustrated," Carroll said. "But also he needs to hang onto the football and it would have been different. He knows that."

Every tailback at USC knows that, and that’s why the system works.

After the Reggie Bush-Lendale White tandem put up a total of 3,605 yards in 2005 behind the best offensive line Pete Carroll has had at USC, the Trojan rushing output fell to 1190 yards and only 11 rushing touchdowns in 2006.

But in 2007, using multiple tailbacks, the total yards more than doubled to 2,671 yards and 23 rushing touchdowns. Last year, it increased again to 2,983 yards and 26 rushing touchdowns behind an inexperienced offensive line and a passing attack directed by the NFL’s Number Five draft pick, Mark Sanchez.

This year, with the entire offensive line returning, another increase is expected. Also, the offense is likely to rely heavily on the run until their new quarterback (Aaron Corp at this point) gets more game experience.

Although there is no "bona fide star" in this system, last year I predicted that Gable would emerge as the starter.

And he did. Gable started every game but two, Oregon State and Penn State. However, he wasn’t the top rusher. That was Stafon Johnson, who rushed for 705 yards on 138 carries and 9 touchdowns. His longest run was 43 yards.

Gable was third overall with 617 yards on 107 carries and eight scores. His longest run was 50 yards. Second was Joe McKnight with 659 on 89 carries and two touchdowns, including his longest, a 55-yard touchdown scamper.

It was the same for all-purpose yards. Johnson caught seven passes for 48 yards and returned 33 punts for 305 yards and 1058 all-purpose yards. McKnight caught 21 passes for 193 yards and a touchdown and returned nine punts for 53 yards for 905 all-purpose yards. Gable caught six passes for 62 yards and returned seven kickoffs for 196 yards, including a 93-yard return for 872 all-purpose yards.

Despite not having a 1,000-yard season, Johnson received an NFL Draft evaluation that rated him as a third round pick. In his meeting with Gable, Carroll told him that he would probably receive the same rating as Johnson since their overall numbers are fairly close.

So, the NFL is certainly aware of these players even though they are not every down backs.

Although Gable started 11 games last year, I expect Stafon Johnson to be the starter in the opener against San Jose State. First of all, Johnson is a true senior, and Pete Carroll prefers to start his seniors if they are deserving, and no one can deny that Johnson is deserving. His statistics bear that out.

Secondly, Johnson is the most consistent running back at picking out holes. He is a straight North-South runner and can also pound out those short yardage situations.

As Johnson himself has said, "I can get you with power or speed—or a mixture of both. Vision is my biggest (asset). Whatever you want, I can get it for you."

Gable and McKnight, on the other hand, don’t have Johnson’s patience or vision and sometimes try to do too much, which can result in losses and turnovers.

This spring, all three missed some workouts due to injuries. Johnson had lingering swelling in the right knee from a ligament injury suffered in the Rose Bowl. Gable came up with a hip pointer during spring drills.

The MRIs for both injuries were negative, and both backs played in the Trojan Huddle, the final spring game. In fact, Gable had the longest run of the day, 45 yards.

McKnight’s injury was more serious. He dislocated four toes on his left foot in the Rose Bowl and only did individual workouts during spring practice.

With the three regulars taking some time off, the coaches got a good look at a couple of backups this spring and were very much impressed.

Curtis McNeal, a redshirt freshman, emerged as a definite threat for opposing defenses in the fall. In fact Pete Carroll hailed McNeal as one of the MVPs of spring practice.

"Our coaching staff believes in this kid. He’s tough, he’s instinctive, he’s fast, he’s creative. He can catch the ball. He’s blocked beautifully in pass protection. He carried the ball twice as much as everybody else in the spring, and he made the very, very most of it. He’s going to play for sure in the fall. There’s no question."

While some have compared McNeal to Oregon State’s Jacquizz Rodgers or Jacksonville’s Maurice Jones-Drew, I feel McNeal is more like former Kansas State Heisman candidate and San Diego Chargers running back, Darren Sproles.

McNeal has the same body type as Sproles and that same bouncing running style. He also seems to have the same work ethic as Sproles, which will prove to be his most valuable asset in the long run.

Marc Tyler, the son of former UCLA and Los Angeles Rams running back Wendell Tyler, suffered a broken leg in a playoff game at Oaks Christian High School and redshirted his freshman year. Last year, he saw limited action in eight games, rushing for 201 yards on 36 carries and catching a ten-yard touchdown pass.

Tyler got a much-needed workout this spring and feels like he’s getting back to the form he had before his injury. He closed out spring practice gaining 44 yards on seven carries, including a four-yard touchdown run in the Trojan Huddle.

The sixth running back in the rotation is Allen Bradford, a 5'11", 225-pound junior. Bradford re-aggravated a hip injury early last year and opted to redshirt and have surgery.

Like McKnight, Bradford only did individual workouts this spring, giving his hip a chance to heal. He expects to be a hundred percent for fall camp and says the injury has helped him focus on football and academics.

While Johnson will be gone next year, and Gable and McKnight could follow him into the NFL Draft, USC won’t be at a loss for replacements. They have Patrick Hall, a do-it-all tailback from St. Bonaventure, coming into fall camp. In addition, USC already has three verbal commitments from tailbacks in the 2010 class.

So, expect USC to once again reload and the system to continue while sportswriters look somewhere other than Tailback U for that "bona fide star."


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