Dennis' 38-yard touchdown run capped the 31-point win over UCLA, but that run seemed to mean so much more at the time. Any ascent to Trojan glory at the time, seemed it would have to include Hershel Dennis. The sprint by the then-true freshman from Long Beach Poly seemingly foreshadowed a bright career at USC. And it certainly started off so. While occasionally overshadowed by freshman standouts Lendale White and Reggie Bush during USC's 2003 National Championship season, Hershel started every game for USC, and rushed for 661 yards.
Dennis was tabbed to be the starter for the Trojans in 2004, but his emotional journey this season was typified last week as everything that could go wrong, did. Hershel did indeed have a very bad week. Like a, ‘Find out you lost your job for no reason, then come home early to find your girlfriend cheating on you'-type week. On Monday, December 13th, Hershel received some relieving, yet frustrating news that the Los Angeles Police Department would not press any charges in last August's alleged sexual assault incident on himself, or any other Trojan for that matter. With possible legal troubles behind him, Dennis returned to practice Wednesday prepared to earn playing time in the Orange Bowl. But Hershel will be watching the game from the sidelines, after he tore ligaments in his left knee during practice Thursday.
This past week's knee injury aside, how did Hershel fall so far from grace? The combination of the emergence of two ultra-talented college players, and a mishandling of the sexual assault allegations—by both USC and the media—left Hershel Dennis as the odd man out.
Players were preparing to move out of summer residences last August, just days before the No. 1-ranked Trojans season opener in Washington D.C., when the program got word of these allegations. Early on the morning of August 17th, Hershel Dennis was whisked out of practice and later suspended indefinitely by the team for violation of team rules. Few facts were ever drawn from this case, but one thing that was very clear is that numerous players had broken curfew, a violation of team rules. The suspended Dennis was replaced by Lendale White and the rest is history. Dennis rushed for only 109 yards on the season, and carried the ball fewer times than redshirt freshman Desmond Reed.
When this story broke on August 18th, it was everywhere. The "Sexual Assault Scandal" at USC was a lead story on every local news outlet, and drew press from national media outlets, including ESPN. Likely because the alleged victim was a former girlfriend of Dennis, the blame was placed squarely on him, at a time when there were few facts in the case. On this past Tuesday, the announcement that no charges would be pressed, while relieving, must certainly have angered Dennis. The story ran on the fourth page of the Los Angeles Times Sports section, and struggled to make local newscasts. After nearly four months of investigation, Dennis was completely exonerated (though not named in the report), and little fuss was made about it.
So where does the embattled Dennis go from here? It would certainly be hard to leave a top-ranked USC team after the Orange Bowl, considering the school's proximity to Long Beach and the abundance of Poly players on the current USC roster. However, Hershel Dennis is too good a football player to sit on the bench behind Lendale and Reggie for his senior year. And with another NFL-type back likely coming next year in Jonathan Stewart, Jason Gwaltney or even Marlon Lucky, the time for Dennis to transfer is approaching quickly.
While Hershel would have to sit out a year, per NCAA rules, he would be able to use his redshirt season and would be eligible for his entire senior year. One year of eligibility may not seem like much, but one year is all a great player like Hershel needs to impress NFL scouts. But where to go for the junior Dennis? Big programs like Stanford or Arizona that are trying to build solid running games are looking for a more permanent solution than Dennis would provide. The extra year off would also allow Hershel to rest the tear in his left knee until it were completely healed and would still give him time to get into shape for his final season.
A school outside the Pac-10 could be a strong possibility. Tyler Ebell, UCLA's leading rusher in 2002, left the Bruins for an opportunity at UTEP. After sitting out 2004, Ebell will get a shot as a senior next year.
The 15th ranked rushing offense in the country lies about 3 hours north of Hershel's home of Long Beach, just east of the 5 freeway. The Fresno State Bulldogs, perennially one of the West Coast top offenses, averaged 228 yards per game on the ground this season. Leading the way for the Bulldog ground game were two juniors, Bryson Sumlin and Wendell Mathis, who combined averaged 180 yards per game. By the time Dennis' redshirt year is all but complete, Sumlin and Mathis will be graduating seniors, and Dennis' injury should be thoroughly healed. Fresno St. would be a perfect university for Dennis to showcase his talents late in his collegiate career, and still stay close to home.
"Close to home," however, may be too far away for Dennis. His mom has said that he will remain at USC and will earn a degree. And if Hershel were to sit out the 2005 season, and allow his knee to completely heal, playing time may not be at such a premium. Reggie Bush and Lendale White are two of the best players in college football and two players that get a lot of national hype and exposure. Both will be eligible for the 2006 NFL Draft and should at least consider the draft. If Reggie and Lendale do depart for the League, Hershel would compete with Desmond Reed, Chauncey Washington and one of the aforementioned recruits. Even if one back decides to leave, Hershel would be a major contributor in an offense that shies away from showcasing just one back.
While certainly difficult for Dennis to believe, everything does happen for a reason. As far as USC is concerned, consider this; Would Lendale White be on the verge of his first career 1,000 yard season if Dennis were in the lineup? Probably not. Would White be the back considering a transfer? And what about the most dangerous player in college football? Reggie Bush doesn't get enough touches as is. Had Hershel Dennis been the starter, Bush would certainly not have been in New York, embracing Matt Leinart after his Heisman victory.
Whether Hershel Dennis decides to stay at USC or take a shot elsewhere, he will have support from this member of the Trojan nation. But If Dennis does stay at USC and allows his knee to fully recuperate, he could come to understand this past season's turmoil. Because in 2006, there will be nothing stopping him from putting together a senior season worthy of that 38-yard touchdown run against UCLA.
Danny Page is a junior who also serves as the color commentator for USC football on KSCR 1560 AM.