Fall position preview: Running backs

Lots of talent, lots of questions to be answered for this group of nine Trojan running backs.

In a "Pump Up" video posted on the P this weekend by 30Thou100Mil, nine minutes of great plays the last couple of seasons by returning Trojans, the surprise was just how many were by running backs.

Justin Davis, Tre Madden and even Cody Kessler on that lungng, plunging TD dash against Arizona State. But as shocking as that one was, the number of long distance runs and catches by the featured duo of Madden and Davis caught us by surprise.

They make what Steve Sarkisian said Friday at Pac-12 Media Days look a little more legitimate. "We're still going to run the ball, we're still going to be a run-first football team," Sark said.

On those highlight plays, this looked like a run-first and run-last offense. But Sark clarified the way he looks at it. And it involves passing.

"We don't want to be a dink-and-dunk offense," Sark said Friday. "We want to throw it down the field."

And if your opponent must respect your ability to run the ball right at them, to run it right down their front seven's throats, their back line guys have to step up, have to lean forward to help out. Think of the Oklahoma secondary in that Orange Bowl national championship game USC fans will never forget.

Then you throw it deep, preferably from play-action. Sounds familiar? It should. That, my friends, is classic USC football. Make you respect the run and then throw it. Simple?

It is -- if you can start by running the ball. USC will give it a try. And with an offensive line that we'll talk about in our next preview.

The news this summer is that they should have a real shot, even without All-Pac-12 Buck Allen and his 1,489 yards (2,306 in his career) and 25 TDs with a Pac-12 best 149.8 all-purpose yards a game thanks to his ability to catch the ball.

But listen to Cody Kessler shouting Davis' praise. "Best running back I've seen," Cody says of the new, improved, healthy Davis in summer workouts, which of course come without pads or contact or opposing defenses.

But the 200-pounder who carried the ball 129 times last season for 595 yards, a 4.6 averagw, with four TDs, in addition to 13 receptions for 92 yards, a 7.1 average, and two TDs, looks more decisive, quicker, stronger and capable of ankle-breaking cutbacks on defenders.

Then there's the 225-pound Madden, who two years ago, got off to a Marcus Allen start with three straight 100-yard rushing games. In six games starting, he totaled 703 yards rushing with four receiving TDs, the most by a USC running back since 2004, before falling to a hamstring injury that year and the broken foot last season.

One quality that's playing out this summer is the number of times the ball gets thrown to these two out of the backfield -- a lot. Then there's the wild card here -- Adoree Jackson, who will get the ball in space on offense whether by a regular handoff or an extended one with a flip to him in space. But make no mistake, these will be running plays. Just no way to chart them now.

The Madden-Davis duo are just 1-2 in whichever way it turns out with Madden saying he'll be 100 percent after foot surgery to reattach his sesamoid bone for what was thought originally to be a serious turf toe issue.

But USC goes nine deep counting freshmen, fullbacks and talented walkons in what's not absolutely certain to be a two-back attack: "We'll see," Sark said of the two-back attack question.

But as Sark repeated at Pac-12 Media Days, "We have plenty enough players to win" -- and that certainly includes running back.

Take the two fullbacks. Both mostly block but each can catch it. Senior Soma Vainuku (seven carries for 40 yds, a 5.7 average, one TD plus six tackles) brings with him his special teams swag while fellow senior Jahleel Pinner had two carries for six yards, 3.0 average plus one reception for three yards and two returns.

Then there are the two walkons. The scholarship-worthy sophomore James Toland IV with 29 carries for 102 yards, a 3.5 average, returns along with redshirt freshman Stefan Smith.

But it's the three freshmen, two of whom we've seen plenty of this summer, that excite USC fans. And with good reason.

Ronald Jones II of McKinney, Tex., had 2,000 yards and 28 rushing TDs as a speedy senior with the best video we've seen although he's not been much of a summer factor after arriving late. Dominic Davis, out of Bishop Alemany High in Mission Hills, has been showing strength, cutting ability, power and hands to go with the speed that had him third and fourth in the 100 at the California state championships the last two years. Aca’Cedric Ware out of Cedar Hill High led his team to a pair of Texas State championships after the 200-pound slasher ran for almost 2,500 yards with 34 TDs in 2014.

Will there be room, or enough footballs, for all of them? Good question. Stay tuned.

SARK SAYS: “Justin and Tre give us a two-headed monster at tailback. Both are quality players who fit well in our system. Help arrives in the fall with some explosive freshmen who give us depth and make this a position of strength. We are very fortunate to have fullbacks like Soma and Jahleel. They have high football IQs and can do so much for us, which presents a real threat to the defense.”


Dominic Davis, In. Fr., TB-WR

Justin Davis, Jr., TB

Ronald Jones II, In. Fr., TB

Tre Madden, Sr., TB

Jahleel Pinner, Sr., FB

Stefan Smith, RFr., TB

James Toland IV, So., TB

Soma Vainuku, Sr., FB

Aca’Cedric Ware, In. Fr., TB

Second in a series of fall position previews for the 2015 Trojans. Tomorrow: The offensive line.

You can follow me on Twitter at @dweber3440 or email me at weber@uscfootball.com.

TAGS: #USCFallCamp15

USCFootball.com Top Stories