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July 22, 2009

Pre-camp Preview: Running backs

If a new playcaller were inheriting an offense like the USC Trojans', he'd look at the backfield the same way a child looks at a wall of toys - so much fun and only so much time.

With no missing parts from last year's running attack that gained over 2,500 yards and averaged 5.0 yards a try, Jeremy Bates will have a lot of hungry mouths to feed in the backfield, and the balancing act won't be easy.

What was

The Trojan rushing game was a three-headed monster led by Stafon Johnson. Johnson, the closest thing to a lead back on the USC roster, rushed for a team-high 705 yards on a team-high 138 carries.

Johnson often didn't start, though. That honor went to C.J. Gable and/or Joe McKnight.

Gable finished the season second on the team with 107 carries, and he rushed for 617 yards. McKnight gained 659 yards on just 89 carries, making him USC's most efficient rusher.

McKnight and fullback Stanley Havili both caught over 20 passes, giving Mark Sanchez a couple of targets out of the backfield.

Marc Tyler got some work in mop-up duty, and Broderick Green transferred midseason.

What is

Somehow, someway, the backfield managed to get even more crowded after the spring. Curtis McNeal was a stud all spring, and Tyler closed spring ball with some very solid efforts.

Add in Allen Bradford, who is healthy after hip surgery, and Bates, running backs coach Todd McNair and Pete Carroll will be making some tough choices.

Bradford said he wants to get on the field be becoming USC's go-to power back.

"I'm just going to continue to play how I can play, the way I did before I got hurt," he said. "That's how I play. I'm not going to go out there and try to act like Reggie Bush. I'm not going to be C.J. Gable. I'm not going out there to juke everybody; I'll do it if I have to.

"Most of the time, I'm just going to go heads up."

And while the group is mostly the same names and numbers, there are some new approaches.

McKnight, for instance, is more comfortable at USC than he's ever been.

"I'm just trying to be more active with the team this year. I wasn't feeling like that the first few years, but now, I'm comfortable," McKnight said. "This is the team I'd rather play with any day, any year. I'm going to remember this forever. I've got that kind of focus - just team. I feel like if I can make this team better, I can make myself better."

After a rocky end to last season, Gable's hoping to play with a positive attitude.

"I was real close (to going to the NFL). I had to see if I was really ready. I really think I was just deciding because of anger out of my situation," Gable said. "I think I made a good decision in staying because I knew I had some maturing to do, and I need to control my anger. I can get mad a lot, and there's stuff I need to figure out before I get to the next level."

And Johnson's just trying to get used to being an old man relative to his stablemates.

"It's very weird. I've seen all these guys come in, and I've been either younger or their age. Now, I've gotten to see people develop and see people leave," Johnson said. "I'm the next guy up, so to speak. I'm still young, but compared to everyone else I'm old. I went from being one of the youngest guys on the team to one of the oldest.

"Crazy."

Behind those guys, Tyler's playing more confidently and McNeal's size and shiftiness make him unique. Throw in versatile fullbacks like Havili and D.J. Shoemate, and the USC offense should get major contributions from the backfield.

What will be

Predicting who will emerge from this group of backs isn't easy.

With his new attitude and with the way he's been flying around the field this spring, McKnight could finally live up to those seemingly unreachable expectations. Still, he likely won't lead the team in rushing.

Johnson or Gable will get close to 1,000 yards but won't go over it. Bradford will get a chance to make some tough yards in important situations, and Tyler and McNeal will carry the load in the second half of lopsided wins.

Both Havili and Shoemate will factor in the passing game, and Havili could even get the ball on some quick-hitting handoffs.

By the time the season is over, critics will still argue that USC should pick one back and go with him. That won't change.

Carroll likes his backfield deep, talented, rested and ready to go, and that's precisely what he's going to get.


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