Heading into training camp, the USC Trojans will finally start to learn how it is to play football with scholarship limits, as the offense sees depth issues at tailback, making Curtis McNeal one of the most valuable players on the USC offense, in addition to recivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee.
Ironically, the scholarship limits didn’t directly impact the depth issues that the Trojans have. The culprit? The transfers of Amir Carlisle to Notre Dame and Dillon Baxter to Baker College by way of San Diego State. However, the limits create the problem of replacing them, both via recruiting and a transfer like Silas Redd.
Had those two players stayed at USC (or realistically, just Carlisle), the Trojans would in theory have a strong set of tailbacks, given that Curtis McNeal would be the senior leader, while Carlisle and D.J. Morgan would be the raw but talented sophomores, and Javarious ‘Buck’ Allen would be the dark horse without any experience.
However, without Carlisle who was the bright spot of last year’s training camp, the important of Curtis McNeal is magnified, as evidenced in Lane Kiffin’s pursuit of Penn State’s Redd. Morgan now becomes a very important running back in rotation, as opposed to a challenger for carries.
McNeal had a big bounce-back season a year ago, after missing all of 2010 due to academics. The junior was the first 1,000-yard rusher for the Trojans since Joe McKnight in 2009, and just the seventh back to hit the mark since 1990. Much in tune with the rise of the Trojans in the second half of the season, McNeal finished the season with four 100-yard games in his last six, while averaging just under 120 yards per contest.
Given his success and the ability of the USC ground attack to open up plays for Matt Barkley to take shots down field, the important of McNeal cannot be understated. His versatility as a pass blocker adds to his production, and coupled with the fumbling issues of D.J. Morgan, was the reason he won the starting job mid-season.
With the season-ending injury to Tre Madden back in spring camp, the Trojans’ backfield would be depleted and the offense would be devastated if McNeal were to miss time for any reason. Even with the questionable arrival of Silas Redd, the Trojans need the steady dose of McNeal to offset the passing game and lessen a potential burden on Morgan and Allen.
The two other valuable pieces to the USC offense are Robert Woods and Marqise Lee. Interestingly enough however, Lee is probably more valuable due to the way he was used in 2011.
While Robert Woods was an all-purpose receiver, Marqise Lee’s strong play as the season progressed allowed Woods to become a de facto decoy. Woods drew corners one way, while Lee split wide the other way or beat his defenders deep, subsequently opening up the passing game and the running game.
The Trojans just couldn’t move the ball consistently at the start of the year, and that was due to the predictability of the Barkley-to-Woods connection. With Lee, that connection wasn’t the go-to-play for the Trojans anymore, though it still served as a way to force the defense to play all sides of the USC attack.
Without Marqise Lee, Robert Woods and the rest of the USC offense isn’t able to be as dominant as they were at the end of the season. And inversely, without Robert Woods serving as a dangerous weapon for the opposition to defend, Lee wouldn’t have been able to be the catalyst for the Trojans in 2011.
In the end, for the USC offense to function, both Curtis McNeal and Marqise Lee have to stay healthy. While they both have tremendous value, they are of varying degrees, as McNeal’s value is tied to the scarcity of the backfield, while Lee’s is linked to his ability to give Matt Barkley and Lane Kiffin options both in terms of space and play calling.