USC football’s running backs won’t be forgotten in Graham Harrell’s Air Raid

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

USC football offensive coordinator Graham Harrell talked up the role of running backs in his offense while giving first impressions of the Trojan rushers.

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In 2018, USC football had less than 400 rushing attempts on the season for the first time since 2012.

It was a down year for the Trojan ground game without Ronald Jones II to carry the ball, but it’s not necessarily because of a lack of ability available. Aca’Cedric Ware averaged 6.60 yards per carry while leading the team in rushing yards. Vavae Malepeai averaged 5.39 yards per carry and led the team with eight touchdowns. And that’s without considering the injury-plagued Stephen Carr.

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The arrival of the Air Raid in 2019 doesn’t mean less opportunities for USC’s running backs. In fact, new offensive coordinator Graham Harrell ran the ball more at North Texas last year than the Trojans.

The run game is where Harrell says he differs the most from Air Raid guru Mike Leach of Washington State.

“We believe in running the football and understand that to win games, especially at a high level, you have to run the football successfully,” Harrell said on Monday, speaking to the media for the first time in his capacity as USC OC.

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The Air Raid certainly puts a focus on the passing game, but the run game remains a tool to keep defenses honest. A solid running game is also vital to keep pressure off the quarterback. Not just in a pass rushing sense, but in carrying the load of the offense.

“It’s hard to be on for 12, 14, 15 straight weeks,” Harrell said. If the quarterback is off, his offense is designed to shift the weight and give the passer room to time back down.

Ware is graduating, but Malepeai and Carr, along with redshirt freshman Markese Stepp and incoming freshman Kenan Christon will be tasked with filling that role.

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What Harrell has seem from his running backs so far in winter workouts has been encouraging.

“I love those guys,” Harrell said.

Malepeai was one of the first Trojan rusher the OC got a good look at.

“He’s just a guy that seems to love football. That’s the most important thing to me,” Harrell said. “He runs tough, he gets tough yards and that’s what you’ve got to be able to do.”

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Tough is a word Harrell also used to describe Stepp, the 230-pounder who figures to see his role increase greatly after taking a redshirt in 2018.

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Already, Harrell highlighted Stepp as a valuable back in short yardage, where power and desire often outweigh scheme.

“You’ve got to have a running back that wants to get across the line more than the defense wants to stop him,” Harrell said.

Perhaps Harrell’s most gifted weapon in the running back corps, Stephen Carr, is someone he hasn’t see a lot of yet.

Coming off an injury which kept him out of the final three games of the 2018 season, Carr is a “home run hitter,” Harrell has been told. But his observations have mostly come in the weight room, where Carr’s “willingness to work and want to” have stood out.

“Work’s not a problem with these guys,” Harrell said. “They all want to work.”

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Spring Camp is a week away, so all three backs will soon enough suit up and attempt to earn their place in Harrell’s offense. Word coming out of USC for now suggests the running backs won’t be an afterthought.