USC football progress report: Markese Stepp just needs a chance

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

USC football running back Markese Stepp is already a fan favorite. He just needs more opportunities to shine.

The ironic thing about USC football’s Air Raid offense? The Trojans have more good running backs than they know what to do with. Markese Stepp is at the heart of that conundrum.

Even though we don’t know when running backs or wide receivers or linebackers will be able to return to the football field, we at Reign of Troy are still looking forward to the 2020 season with an examination of each key Trojan.

Who are they? What have they done? And what could they do?

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Stepp is the next one to get the progress report treatment…

What USC got as a recruit:

Stepp was recruited to USC by running backs coach Deland McCullough, who left for a position in the NFL before the four-star running backs got to campus. It was McCullough’s vote of confidence that assuaged the fears regarding Stepp’s potential as a top-quality runner. He had rushed for 888 yards in 2015 as a sophomore, but a hamstring injury kept him off the field in 2016. Even after posting 975 yards and 17 touchdowns in 2017, the injury question loomed.

The 247Sports composite rated Stepp as the No. 307 prospect in the class of 2018, 14th among running backs. There wasn’t total agreement on that front though. The 247Sports solo ranking judged him as a three-star and 34th among running backs.

What wasn’t in doubt was his size and power. At 6-foot, 228-pounds, Stepp had the potential to be a bruising back in college, if his body cooperated.

What he’s accomplished:

Entering Year 3 with the program, Stepp has rushed for just 340 yards, but with a 6.2 per carry average, his potential has been very much proven.

As a true freshman, Stepp took advantage of new redshirt rules by participating in four games. a mere seven carries were enough to put him on the brink of fan-favorite status thanks to his powerful running style.

In 2019, fuel was added to the fire pushing for Stepp to become a bigger feature in the offense as he posted 307 yards on just 48 carries, averaging 5.7 yards a pop. Even if he didn’t fit the mold of an Air Raid running back, he ran through defenders like a semi-truck. Unfortunately, he blew a tire against Arizona, suffering a torn ligament in his ankle and missing the final six games of the season.

What to expect in 2020:

Here’s where it gets tricky. Stepp is one of four returning running backs and is no certainty to top the rotation. Runners like Stephen Carr and Vavae Malepeai have seniority to go along with a more all-around style. Kenan Christon has the blazing speed to recommend him as a weapon in the passing attack.

Figuring out where Stepp will fit in is a guessing game.

It’s entirely possible Stepp will be USC’s featured running back. If so, he’d be capable of storming his way to 1,000 yards on the season.

It’s also likely Stepp will be one of no less than three primary backs who share the load on an equal basis. Carries per game for each would likely fluctuate between eight and 15. He’d certainly do his damage on a drive-by-drive basis, but his personal production would be capped.

Where he goes from here:

Let’s assume Stepp remains healthy for most of the 2020 campaign and puts up a respectable total of 800 yards rushing at just under six yards per carry. He might have an interesting choice on his hands.

As a redshirt sophomore, Stepp would be eligible to leave for the NFL.

The argument for going, even if his draft projection is no better than the middle rounds, is time and wear. Running backs don’t have a long shelf life as football players, so it’s usually in the best interest of a back to get to the pros as quickly as he can with as little wear on his body as possible.

On the other hand, the graduation of Malepeai and Carr would set Stepp up to be the featured back in 2021. In that role, he could elevate his draft status considerably.

However the remainder of his Trojan career plays out, Stepp’s strength as a runner should make him an intriguing NFL prospect, one with the chance to do great things.

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