Pac-10 Position Breakdown: Running Back – USC Trojans

By Sam Saig, July 14, 2009 10:03 am

Based on pre-season attention, USC may not have one of the top four running backs in the Pac-10 heading into 2009. After all, other conference headliners like Best, Rodgers, Gerhart, and Blount have garnered most of the accolades from last season, and deservedly so. But a strong case could be made that the Trojans feature up to five of the top 10 tailbacks in the conference; the talent in the SC backfield is that good. In fact, this may be the deepest group of runners in the country.

Last season, the Trojans did not produce a 1,000-yard rusher and still managed to finish with the 3rd most rushing yards in the Pac-10. The unit has everything a coach could ask for – speed, power, quickness, experience, youthfulness, explosion and perhaps most importantly; confidence. So how will Pete Carroll and Co. manage all of the talent? It won’t be easy, but most coaching staffs would love to have the same problem.

The closest thing the Trojans have to a feature back is senior Stafon Johnson. Johnson led the Trojans in rushing last season with 705 yards and nine touchdowns on 138 carries (5.1 YPC). For his career, he has amassed 1,395 yards and 14 touchdowns. Johnson also led SC’s punt return unit, fielding 33 punts for 305 yards (9.2 yards per return).

At 5-11 210 pounds, Johnson runs with a balanced mix of speed and power, but it is his vision that separates him from the rest of the crowded SC backfield. He is an intuitive runner who has an exceptional feel for the game. Johnson enters his final year having never rushed for 1,000 yards in a season, but likely would have done so at almost any other program in the country where the carries were easier to come by.

Stafon Johnson refuses to go down

Stafon Johnson refuses to go down

Johnson is an elite inside runner, and has the patience to wear down a defense between the tackles. Combine that with his 4.4 speed, and the Trojans have one of college football’s most versatile runners. The Bellflower (CA) native has been making plays since his days at Dorsey High School in Los Angeles.

His stellar prep career was noticed by every recruiting service. Johnson was a Parade All-American in 2005 and Rivals.com gave him 5-stars and rated him the #2 running back of the 2006 recruiting class. The NFL is already buzzing about Johnson, and a productive senior season would only enhance his draft status. He enters fall camp primed for a big 2009 season.

The Trojans most electrifying athlete outside of safety Taylor Mays might be junior Joe McKnight. The elusive speedster from River Ridge (LA) arrived on the SC campus with incredibly lofty expectations. Many pundits believed he would immediately offset the loss of Reggie Bush, but injury issues have made his transition from high school to college a little tougher. Still, McKnight is one of the Pac-10’s brightest stars, possessing a game breaking skill set that only Jahvid Best can match within the conference.

Last season, McKnight finished second on the team in rushing with 659 yards and two touchdowns on 89 carries (7.4 YPC). His 7.4 yards per carry was the 4th best average in the country. He also caught 21 passes for 193 yards and one touchdown, and spent time returning kicks and punts.

When healthy, McKnight is an all-purpose threat that requires a defensive coordinator to design a game plan just for him. At 6-0 190 pounds, McKnight is not built to carry the ball 25 times a game, but he is the type of difference-maker that must touch the ball in multiple ways. On top of his rushing skills, he is a sure-handed receiver that can be used in the slot or out of the backfield as a pass catcher.

McKnight had a legendary prep career at John Curtis High School (LA). He led his team to a state championship in his senior year, and amassed 1,928 all-purpose yards with an incredible 22.2-yard average per touch during the season. He also won the state title for track in 2006 with a time of 10.4 seconds. The former five-star prospect was the #1 rated tailback of the 2007 class by Rivals.com. McKnight could have a breakout season in 2009, and should touch the ball quite a bit even with all of the other options.

Joe McKnight hurdles defenders

Joe McKnight hurdles defenders

Redshirt junior C.J. Gable may be the forgotten man in this bottomless pit of rushing talent. Last season Gable played very well, running for 617 yards and 8 touchdowns on 107 attempts (5.8 YPC). For his career, the 6-0 200 pound back has run for 1,194 yards and 12 touchdowns.

Gable’s upright running style is a change of pace from McKnight and Johnson, and he uses he lengthy frame to slice through defenses at will. The Sylmar (CA) native is also a very talented kick returner, ranking 11th in school history with 662 yards for his career. Gable is yet another 5-star tailback and Parade-All American. Rivals.com rated him as the #3 athlete of the 2006 recruiting class. His size, strength, and vision compare favorably to Johnson and he enters 2009 as yet another one of the main rushing options for the USC coaches to utilize.

Junior Allen Bradford might be SC’s main short yardage back. At 5-11 235 pounds he is a bruising runner that can torment a defense with his power. After the transfer of former tailback Broderick Green, the role of power back rests with Bradford. Pete Carroll has praised Bradford for his leadership and patient demeanor. The San Bernardino (CA) native ran for 57 yards on only 14 carries with one touchdown.

His 2008 campaign was cut short after he underwent season-ending hip surgery. Bradford was originally recruited as a safety and has also spent time at fullback. While it will still be difficult to get carries, Bradford’s unique skill set may allow him to touch the ball more in 2009.

Rounding out the list of potential ball carriers for the Trojans are sophomore Marc Tyler, and redshirt freshman Curtis McNeal.

The 6-0 225 pound Tyler showed promise in limited action during 2008. He finished fourth on the team in rushing with 198 yards and one touchdown on 36 attempts (5.5 YPC), and caught a TD as well.

Tyler was rated right behind Joe McKnight as the #2 tailback of the 2007 recruiting class when he left Oaks Christian High School (CA). Rivals.com rated him as a 5-star talent and he too was a Parade All-American. He may not play much this year unless injuries mount, but Tyler has a very bright future in L.A.

Those close to the USC program are raving about redshirt freshman Curtis McNeal. The 5-8 190 pound Los Angeles native had a great spring and could develop into something very special one day. He has a rare combination of speed, quickness and vision despite his unconventional size.

Ironically, he was one of SC’s most unheralded recruits with only a 3-star rating from most recruiting services. Nonetheless, he is making it difficult for the coaches to ignore him even as a freshman. Carroll has plenty of talent ahead of McNeal, but don’t be surprised if the Venice (CA) High School standout finds a way to get into the game.

The Trojans will feature arguably the best fullback in the country in junior Stanley Havili. The Salt Lake City (UT) native can do it all as a blocker, receiver, and runner. He enters 2009 with 205 career rushing yards and two TDs, as well as 62 catches for 596 yards and eight TDs. Havili can be a mismatch out of the backfield, but is also an exceptional run blocker who should help pave the way for all six Trojan tailbacks this season. He will start at fullback for the third year in a row.

My Take

The backfield talent at USC is staggering. It’s not easy to manage so many superstars, and yet somehow Pete Carroll makes it work. This season they look deeper than ever. To put it all in perspective: a back like Marc Tyler could start at 95 percent of programs around the country, but he’s okay being 5th string for the Trojans. If you factor in a very good offensive line and a dominant fullback, this potent rushing attack should be scary good.

Expect Johnson and Gable to be the steady providers, with a healthy dose of explosion from Joe McKnight. Bradford may be perfect for third and short, and goal line situations. The other backs are insurance in case of injuries, but we could also see them if Carroll wants to get creative.

The running game should be the strength of the SC offense; what a great luxury to have for a young QB like Aaron Corp.

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