USC football spring preview: Running backs looking for roles

Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy
Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy /

The role of USC football’s running back unit may be in flux as the Trojans install the Air Raid during Spring Camp. But playmaking rushers should still have their place.

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USC football’s 2019 Spring Camp will introduce every aspect of the offense to a new system. That change will obviously benefit certain units, but others come into the spring with some uncertainty.

Running back is one such unit.

The Trojans return more than enough talent at the position. The question is how offensive coordinator Graham Harrell and new running backs coach Mike Jinks plan to deploy the horses in the stable.

Roster Rundown

Departing (1):Aca’Cedric Ware

Returning (3):Vavae Malepeai (RS-Jr.)Stephen Carr (Jr.)Markese Stepp (RS-Fr.)

Spring Enrollees (0):N/A

Fall Enrollees (1):Kenan Christon (Fr.)

USC’s leading rusher in 2018, Aca’Cedric Ware, has graduated. Ware was a stalwart for the Trojans and arguably one of the more underrated figures on the team last year. Even so, filling in the hole of his departure shouldn’t be overly difficult.

First and foremost, USC will hope to have Stephen Carr back and healthy in 2019.

The junior back showed mouthwatering skill in the first month of his freshman season. Unfortunately, he has never really tapped back into that mode. He missed a large chunk of that campaign due to injury, then underwent back surgery during the 2018 offseason. The lingering effects of that procedure, along with a late season ankle sprain limited his effectiveness greatly as a sophomore.

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Clay Helton indicated Carr has been fully cleared for winter workouts, so he will be expected to compete for the starting job this spring.

Vavae Malepeai led USC in rushing touchdowns last season. He saw his role increase, but still served primarily as a secondary option behind Ware. As the most consistent of the Trojan rushers, his all-around game should ensure him a place in the rotation in 2019. If he can gain the faith of Jinks this spring, his role could be even larger than that.

Finally, Markese Stepp took a redshirt in 2018, but a brief cameo with five carries for 23 yards against Notre Dame showed what the big back from Indiana could bring to the offense. That is, if Jinks wants to utilize a power option.

With just three scholarship running backs available, depth will undoubtedly be a talking point for the position this spring. Kenan Christon will arrive in the fall to help with that.

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Biggest Battle

Carr may be the favorite to win the starting job this offseason, but Malepeai is an intriguing challenger who could make a big first impression on the new running backs coach.

If past running back rotation policies hold fast, both will see plenty of run in the coming campaign. However, Jinks has largely stuck to a featured back in previous offenses, so being the top dog could mean a lot coming out of camp.

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Perhaps the biggest battle of all will be between the running backs and their bodies. There can be no competition if USC’s runners can’t stay healthy. The track record on that hasn’t been great for any of them.

Player to Watch

With speed and pass-catching ability, Carr is arguably a perfect fit for Jinks and the Air Raid system. Malepeai’s skillset doesn’t translate quite as perfectly, but he does a little bit of everything well, which could settle him into the new offense nicely. But Stepp? His future is more murky.

There is little doubt about his ability. He is a powerful runner with the tenacity to eek out every possible yard. However, he doesn’t fit the mold of running backs Jinks has fostered during his career.

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Can the Trojans find a way to get the most out of Stepp in this new system? Spring ball will offer the first hints.