USC Football 2015: Previewing the Running Backs


The running back position is one of USC football’s biggest question marks going into 2015, with just two returning scholarship players in the unit.

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Last season the position was one of USC’s great strengths. First team All-Pac-12 running back Buck Allen led the way with 1,489 yards rushing, 458 yards receiving and 12 total touchdowns.

Allen’s departure leaves the Trojans with a great void to fill. The versatile back accounted for more than 70% of USC’s production on the ground.

That one man attack was effective enough, but relative to the rest of the conference USC’s rushing offense left something to be desired. They ranked seventh in yards per game, tenth in rushing touchdowns and averaged just 3.99 yards per carry, one of just three teams in the Pac-12 under the four-yard average.

What We Learned in Spring:

There was only so much to be learned from such a thin unit during spring camp.

Junior Justin Davis looked promising enough as USC’s lone healthy option at the position. Redshirt senior Tre Madden continued to work his way back to fitness, but was limited to non-contract drills.

Notably, Davis and Madden shared starting status on the post-spring depth chart released by Steve Sarkisian.

The lack of scholarship options resulted in senior fullback Soma Vainuku seeing more reps than expected at running back. Though his role should stay at fullback, at the very least Vainuku stands out as break-glass-in-case-of-emergency option.

Walk-on sophomore James Toland IV remained the third option.

What Could Go Right:

Davis and Madden could indeed be the “two-headed monster” Sarkisian has described them as in 2015.

In the number two role, Davis ran for 595 yards with four touchdowns as a sophomore. His freshman season was cut short after just seven games, but he was even more impressive with 361 yards and six touchdowns in the early going.

Aug 29, 2013; Honolulu, HI, USA; Southern California Trojans running back Tre Madden (23) carries the ball on a 34-yard gain against the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors at Aloha Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Now Davis will be a featured option with a full compliment of carries to work with rather than leftovers. Given his nose for the goal line, 2015 could be his break out season.

Consistency was a problem last year, but perhaps Davis will prove a more reliable option with a regular helping of the ball. The stop-start nature of his touches in 2014 certainly did him no favors.

Theoretically, Madden could take over Allen’s role as the featured back completely, based on his outstanding 2013 production pre-hamstring injury. He eclipsed 100 yards in four of USC’s first five games and looked the part as a workhorse back.

At the same time, there is something to the idea of Madden as the thunder to Davis’ lightning in a two-back system.

With Madden’s bruising, between-the-tackle style and Davis’ elusive running, the tandem could certainly compliment each other. Add in the fact both are capable of making receptions out of the backfield and USC could have a dangerous ground attack.

Further down the depth chart, the incoming freshmen, Ronald Jones II, Aca’Cedric Ware and Dominic Davis, would be free to develop and contribute behind the two veteran starters.

If any of the three are likely to earn significant carries early it is Jones, who possess explosive, big-play ability which could be useful in his freshman year.

Though unlikely to see major carries, Davis could very well earn touches in other ways as an all-purpose weapon.

What Could Go Wrong:

Injuries could get the better of either of USC’s top two options.

Madden’s health issues are well documented; He missed all of 2012 with a knee injury, half of 2013 with a pulled hamstring, and all of 2014 with turf toe. That is not a record that inspires much confidence.

Davis is not free from concern either. He tore his Achilles tendon as a freshman and lost half the season.

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It would not surprise anyone if Madden were limited by some injury or another this year, which would put USC a Davis injury away from having to rely on a true freshman running back to carry the load.

While the younger Davis, Ware and especially Jones have plenty of talent and could possibly handle the responsibility, having to turn to players in their first months of the college experience would be far from ideal.

Even if Madden or Davis could stay healthy, there are no guarantees that either or both could make up for what Allen brought to the table, especially after the major surgeries each has undergone.

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Projected Depth Chart:

  1. Tre Madden/Justin Davis
  2. Ronald Jones II
  3. James Toland IV
  4. Dominic Davis
  5. Aca’Cedric Ware

Overall Strength: 5/10

There are a lot of “ifs” when it comes to USC as a whole in 2015, but the overall strength of the running back is particularly locked into that description.

If Madden stays healthy and if Justin Davis delivers on the promise of his freshman season, this unit could be an unexpected strength. If Jones hits the ground running, the running backs could even rise to become one of the best groups in the conference.

On the other hand, if Madden or Davis go down injured and the freshman experience the normal sorts of first year hiccups, running back could be the albatross hanging around the Trojan offense’s neck.