USC tailbacks give early buy-in to Steve Sarkisian's one-back offense

USC tailbacks give early buy-in to Steve Sarkisian's one-back offense
USC running backs (from left to right) Justin Davis, Tre Madden and Javorius Allen are each set to see plenty of carries this season. (Wally Skalij, Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

USC tailbacks did not need friends, family members or reporters to point out the situation.

They all knew Coach Steve Sarkisian took over the Trojans program after a final season at Washington that featured a fast-paced offense with one distinguishing feature:

One running back.

Bishop Sankey carried the ball 327 times for the Huskies, a workload not seen at USC since the Tailback U glory days in the late 1960s to the early '80s.


Last season at USC, Javorius Allen, Tre Madden and Justin Davis combined for 326 carries.

So who will carry the load for the Trojans this season?

"We're going to play more than one guy," running backs coach Johnny Nansen said after a training camp practice in preparation for the Aug. 30 opener against Fresno State.

Sarkisian is experienced at divvying up carries.

He oversaw USC's offense for four seasons under former coach Pete Carroll and worked with former assistant Todd McNair to manage a backfield that included stars Reggie Bush and LenDale White.

In 2005, Bush carried the ball 200 times, White 197.

"You can be a really successful offense and a really successful player," Sarkisian said of sharing carries.

That is the message Allen, Madden and Davis received during spring practice, throughout the off-season and during the first week of training camp.

And they sound as if they are embracing it.

"There's enough to go around," Allen said.

Allen, Madden and Davis lead a running back corps that includes versatile fullbacks Soma Vainuku and Jahleel Pinner. Ty Isaac transferred to Michigan and D.J. Morgan is now playing safety, but cornerback Anthony Brown has moved to running back and walk-on James Toland IV impressed during spring practice.

Allen, 6 feet 1 and 220 pounds, emerged to become the Trojans' most valuable player last season after injuries suffered by Silas Redd, Madden and Davis — and interim coach Ed Orgeron's pledge to play everyone in the second half of the season — opened the door for opportunity.

Allen rushed for more than 100 yards four times and scored 13 touchdowns in the final six games.

He finished with a team-best 835 yards rushing in 135 carries, and flirted with making himself available for the NFL draft before deciding to return for his junior season.

"I knew I had to come back and get my degree," said Allen, a sociology major. "I felt that was important for me and my family."

Madden, 6-1 and 225 pounds, played linebacker as a freshman in 2011, switched to tailback in the spring of 2012 and suffered a knee injury that sidelined him for the season.

But he came back in 2013 and produced one of the most prolific starts in USC history.

He rushed for more than 100 yards in each of the first three games, a feat not achieved at USC since Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Allen did it in 1981.

He suffered a midseason hamstring injury against Arizona and aggravated the problem three games later. He was used sparingly the rest of the season and sat out the Las Vegas Bowl against Fresno State.

Madden finished with 722 yards rushing in a team-high 138 carries and also caught four touchdown passes.

"I feel like I showed a lot in pretty much every aspect of the game," Madden said. "I don't have any concerns about carries. I'm just preparing myself for when my number is called."

Davis got off to a fast start as a freshman, rushing for 74 yards and a touchdown in last season's opener against Hawaii. But he suffered a season-ending ankle injury against Notre Dame.

In seven games, Davis rushed for 389 yards and six touchdowns in 53 carries. He underwent surgery last October and sat out spring practice.

So training camp has provided the first chance for the 6-1, 195-pound Davis to impress the new staff.

"Coming off an injury, you're going to have your hiccups," he said. "I'm out here trying to make those hiccups very short and temporary."

"I'm working as hard as I can to pick up where I left off last year."

Davis echoed Allen and Madden, saying he was not concerned about the number of carries he might be in line for.

Nansen said nothing had been determined.

"It wouldn't surprise me if we start different guys," he said.

Sarkisian points to his history at USC. Relying on more than one back is, once again, his plan.

"It's been proven," he said, "and I think we'll do great this time around."