Spring Review: Running Backs

At 6-foot-2 and 255 pounds, Soma Vainuku brings a more physical pop than his predecessor, but has good enough hands to be a solid receiver.

Post-Spring Depth Chart
Running Back
1. Curtis McNeal OR Marc Tyler OR D.J. Morgan OR Dillon Baxter

Fullback
1. Soma Vainuku
2. Hunter Simmons

Projected Post-Fall Camp Depth Chart
Running back
1. D.J. Morgan
2. Marc Tyler
3. Curtis McNeal
4. Dillon Baxter

Fullback
1. Soma Vainuku
2. Hunter Simmons

Three Questions Answered in the Spring

1. Redemption stories are great, but have muddied the water.

Last fall had to be the most trying times in the young lives of Dillon Baxter, Curtis McNeal and D.J. Morgan.

Morgan was still recovering from the torn knee ligaments he suffered as a high school senior. McNeal was academically ineligible and, according to coach Lane Kiffin, nearly kicked off the team for good because of his attitude. The touted Baxter went through myriad issues, from two one-game suspensions to an injury that derailed his breakout game against Stanford.

Now all three are back, older and wiser. It showed in the spring game, when they accounted for 300 rushing yards and four touchdowns.

The biggest reclamation project, McNeal showed tremendous instincts on his 49-yard scoring run. Appearing to be stopped at the line of scrimmage for no gain, he bounced to his left, broke to the outside and down the sideline for the score.

Each has a special attribute that could put him on the field extensively. Morgan is the most complete of the three backs, equally adept as a pass catcher and rusher, McNeal the most dynamic and capable on special teams, and Baxter the most talented, despite his speed deficiencies.

USC still hasn't seen the best of Baxter in the Wildcat, and there was plenty of buzz that coaches considered pulling Morgan's redshirt last season to see what he could do as the ground game bogged down.

So where does that leave the competition?

All three will play in the fall, but Morgan remains the best bet to take over as feature back.

2. Tyler will be the default option once again. Maybe.

In an embarrassing incident during the radio broadcast of the USC spring game, one of the commentators, thinking he was off air, said Marc Tyler wouldn't play because he was too fat.

Harsh, but potentially true. Physical fitness is the single biggest obstacle to the senior seeing the field.

Tyler's upright running style makes his more susceptible to injury. He could barely make it through one practice this spring before pulling up with a hamstring injury. Once Tyler was back, he was put out of action again, this time with a concussion.

The good news is coaches always seem willing to go back to Tyler, who led USC with 913 rushing yards and nine touchdowns. With Morgan redshirting and McNeal an academic casualty, Tyler was the more dependable option that Baxter and the hot-and-cold Allen Bradford.

With Morgan and McNeal so impressive in the spring, he might not be the reset position this time around. Tyler has to be ready and in shape to finally post his breakthrough season.

3. Given time, Vainuku will be a major weapon.

Ask anyone what the second-toughest position on the USC offense is, you get the same answer. It's fullback and it's not even close. You have to know all the pass protections, all the run blocking schemes and all the routes and check downs as a receiver.

That challenge is tough enough for an experienced upperclassman, like the departed Stanley Havili. For a true freshman just arriving on campus, it should have been impossible.

That's what made Soma Vainuku's spring performance so impressive. As the only fullback available, he saw all the reps. Sure he was overwhelmed at times, but the natural skills and athleticism are there to be great. At 6-foot-2 and 255 pounds, Vainuku brings a more physical pop than his predecessor, but has good enough hands to be a solid receiver.

Now the challenge will be in the classroom. Vainuku must have an understanding of the playbook on par with the quarterbacks.

If Vainuku can't digest everything, the Trojans really don't have any other options at fullback. Senior tight end Rhett Ellison could be used as an H-back, motioning in and out of the backfield, as could sophomore Christian Thomas, but would lack the same effectiveness in the run game.

Kiffin would instead use multiple receivers and tight ends, positions where there is plenty of quality depth, to compliment a single running back in a melding of the traditional I and spread offenses.

But USC is a two-back offense, engrained in the very foundation of the program for decades. To do that best, it's all on Vainuku and how he continues to improve over the next four months.


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