2014 USC Football Preview: Running Backs


In 2013, the Trojans enjoyed the emergence of three break out stars at running back.

Tre Madden‘s performances harkened back to the achievements of past greats. Justin Davis flashed with the excitement of youth.  Javorius Allen, aka Buck, stormed to the forefront with a much-lauded second half resurgence.

Now, Madden, Davis and Allen present Steve Sarkisian and his coaching staff with a welcome conundrum.

Sarkisian has already indicated that he intends to use a rotation instead of the featured-back system he utilized in Washington to great effect.

Early signs point to Madden and Allen switching off with Davis as a change of pace, but the question remains: How can you get the most out of all three?

What happened last year:

Tre Madden astounded attendees of spring practice back in 2012 when he made the switch from linebacker to running back before blowing out his knee.

Last season began with definitive proof that all the hype had been accurate. Madden led the Trojans in rushing through the first five games.

Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Eclipsing 100 yards in three straight games to start the year, Madden’s name was mentioned alongside that of Marcus Allen. The only thing keeping the Mission Viejo product from making it five in a row was a 93-yard performance against Utah State in the fourth game.

During that same time, Davis showed his potential with a keen nose for the goal. He led the Trojans with six touchdowns through the first six games.

Injuries to both Madden, who suffered a hamstring injury against Arizona, and Davis, who burst his achilles tendon against Notre Dame, as well as the firing of Lane Kiffin opened the door for Allen, who had spent most of his career in Kiffin’s doghouse.

Under offensive coordinator Clay Helton, Allen burst onto the scene with electric 133-yard, three-touchdown performance against Oregon State. He continued that form with 100+ yard games against Cal, Colorado and UCLA, while adding a key touchdown against Stanford. His efforts earned him the USC MVP award.

What’s gone on in camp:

Sarkisian promised a “run-first” offense and that is what has been on display in practice during fall camp.

The three main men have raved about their roles in the system and it appears for now at least that there will be plenty of the pie to share between them. Part of that equation includes an increased role in the passing game.

Davis especially stood out during last week’s Coliseum scrimmage, though he needs to improve his conditioning after such a long time out with injury. A slight tweak to his ankle has slowed him late in camp.

Madden and Allen seem to have the two starting spots locked up, but Madden’s injury history continues to rear its head. Turf toe has his foot in a boot for the time being and there is little indication of his status for the opener against Fresno State.

In other camp news, cornerback Anthony Brown was switched to running back while running back D.J. Morgan was switched to cornerback.

Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

What to expect:

USC could very well have a Heisman candidate in their backfield this season.

At the very least, the Trojans have one of the strongest running back corps in the conference, if not the country.

As with all things relating to USC under scholarship reductions, the key is staying healthy.

Luckily for Steve Sarkisian, Allen seems to be plenty durable and if he ends up on his own this year he could easily produce the kind of numbers that Bishop Sankey and Chris Polk put up under Sarkisian at Washington. Project what Allen did in six games of real involvement over the entirety of USC’s season and the redshirt junior would rack up more than 1200 yards and 24 touchdowns.

At the same time, a healthy Madden is as complete a running back as there is in the Pac-12 right now. He thrived in all aspects of the game in 2013. With power to break tackles and fight for yards in tight spaces, speed to rip off long runs, and pass catching ability to add an extra dimension, Madden could be the workhorse and everything else for the Trojans.

Then there’s Davis, who boasts legitimate enough talent to challenge to two ahead of him for serious playing time this season. If not for the Achilles injury, it might have been Davis who carried the Trojans in the second half of 2013 instead of Allen.

Who will break out:

Of all the running backs on USC’s roster, Davis is the one with the greatest potential.

His influence as a true freshman was impressive enough in an offense which seemed built to stifle offensive production. We never got to see him truly hit his stride but when you consider a performance like he put in against Arizona State, rushing for 120 yards and three touchdowns on just 10 carries, you’ve got to believe that the sky is the limit.

This year Davis is considered the third option in line, but it would surprise few if he vaulted to the top of the depth chart a year earlier than expected.

The only thing holding him back is his recovering ankle, though that hasn’t seemed to slow him too much in fall camp.