Ronald Jones II is an underrated weapon who could steal the show, but there are concerns which could slow all the Trojan running backs in USC Football 2017.
While the nation focuses in on quarterback Sam Darnold’s ability to drive USC Football towards a championship, the Trojans boast a stacked group of running backs who will play a major role in 2017.
Led by new running backs coach Deland McCullough, the running game could be the boost USC needs to return to the national spotlight, if they don’t fall victim to other concerns surrounding the Trojan offense.
Here’s a look at the best-case, worst-case for USC’s running backs:
Ronald Jones II forces his way into the Heisman Trophy discussion.
If there’s a dark horse Heisman contender on USC’s roster, it’s running back Ronald Jones II.
He’s not a household name in college football, but he could easily become one as one of the most underrated Trojan weapons.
Jones has averaged 6.3 yards per carry in two years as a Trojan, which is the fourth-best mark among USC’s all-time rushers.
This go-around, he’ll be the top dog in a deep running back group after sharing duties with more veteran backs like Justin Davis and Tre Madden.
As the featured back, Jones possesses the ability to solidify himself as the best running back to star at USC since Reggie Bush.
And while it’s never fair to compare a player to Bush’s legend, the 2005 offense is a good place to start when thinking about potential best-case scenarios for the Trojans in 2017.
If Sam Darnold steps into the Matt Leinart role and Jones occupies Bush’s, in terms of production if not pure excitement, then USC has more than a few candidates for the LenDale White position — the less-heralded but still devastating second option.
In 2005, White rushed for 1,302 yards alongside Bush’s 1,740. Even if Jones reaches the heights of the Heisman Trophy discussion, USC’s backfield would have room for Aca’Cedric Ware, Vavae Malepeai or Stephen Carr to shine as well.
A rebuilt offensive line and nagging injuries limit USC’s ground game.
In order for even the most talented running back to operate, he must have a capable offensive line clearing the way for him. That’s not something that can be guaranteed for the Trojan running backs at this point.
There’s no question about the talent level USC possesses in it’s runners, but the only sure thing about the Trojan offensive line is the questions which surround it.
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So that’s where the nightmare could begin. Consider what USC’s offensive line looked like against Alabama in 2016, when the Trojan running backs managed 73 total yards, 46 of which came on one Jones run. The Crimson Tide had their way with USC in the trenches. Now apply that performance to games against less-elite, but still quality defensive lines like Stanford and Utah.
It wouldn’t matter that Jones is perhaps the most talented running back at USC since Bush or that the Trojans have more running back depth than they’ve had in recent memory. If backs are being hit in the backfield, there’s only so much they can do.
There’s another element to this worst-case scenario — injuries.
As exciting as USC’s running back group is, it’s also a unit with a concerning injury history.
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Jones hasn’t officially missed games due to injury, but he’s had a string of nagging concerns limit his action. He sat out the second half of last year’s contest against Utah State with bruised ribs and missed time this spring with a toe problem.
Ware sat out two games in 2016 with a sprained ankle, an issue which also limited him in the Rose Bowl and throughout spring camp.
Malepeai redshirted as a freshman, in part due to a broken shoulder blade he suffered during fall camp.
Strong depth will allow the Trojans to handle an injury or two as the season goes, but some unlucky timing could be devastating.
There is a lot to be unsure about regarding USC’s offensive line, but there is also a lot of talent available and a capable position coach in Neil Callaway to sort it all out.
In that sense, the running game is unlikely to be a complete disaster.
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Maybe Jones isn’t capable of approaching Bush’s return of 1,700 yards or making a real push at the Heisman discussion, but he managed 1,082 yards in 2016 and that total should only grow as he gets more opportunities.
A realistic target for Jones may be replicating Buck Allen’s 2014 season, with 1,489 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Beside Jones, the Trojans don’t necessarily need White-level contributions, but they’ve got the horses to feature a second back who at least approaches 1,000-yards.
Unfortunately, it’s almost a certainty that one of Jones, Ware, Malepeai and Carr will miss large swaths of the season due to injury. That there are likely to be replacements readily on hand at least ensures that the position isn’t likely to face a major crisis.