Spring practice once served as a springboard for Justin Davis to land a spot in
Davis' strong performance this spring has reinforced his status as the Trojans' most experienced and productive tailback going into next season. He and Tre Madden are listed at the top of USC's depth chart heading into Saturday's spring game at the Coliseum.
Davis intends to demonstrate why he belongs there to stay. "Hopefully, I can get out there and show the fans a little something," he said.
Two years ago, Davis graduated early from high school to participate in spring practice and get a head start on his college career. The strategy worked. He was USC's No. 2 tailback in the 2013 opener.
But last year, Davis sat out most of the spring while recovering from ankle surgery that ended his freshman season. In the fall, with Madden sidelined because of a foot injury, Davis served as Javorius Allen's backup during the Trojans' 9-4 season.
Now, Allen has decided to forgo his final season of eligibility to make himself available for the NFL draft, which left Davis, walk-on James Toland IV and fullbacks Soma Vainuku and Jahleel Pinner as the only running backs this spring.
Madden, a fifth-year senior who started the first six games in 2013, has been held out of most contact drills but is expected to be physically sound when training camp begins in August.
Freshmen Ronald Jones II, Aca'Cedric Ware and Dominic Davis also will join the tailback corps this summer, giving second-year Coach
"It's just going to feel a lot better to have more depth than we've had," Sarkisian said.
The 6-foot-1 Justin Davis is no longer the rail-thin 17-year-old who arrived at USC from Stockton High, a player who rushed for 361 yards and six touchdowns before suffering a broken ankle in the seventh game against Notre Dame.
His biceps and triceps now bulge. Davis is listed at 195 pounds but he said he has gained seven pounds of muscle since the end of last season, when he rushed for 595 yards and four touchdowns and caught two touchdown passes.
"I'm the fastest I've felt in awhile," he said.
He also has matured as a runner.
"The game has slowed down tremendously for me," he said, adding, "Now I can see how the linebackers are flowing, safety rotations… so many little things."
Teammates, especially those on defense, have noticed.
"He's looked amazing," linebacker Quinton Powell said. "He's making cuts half the people in the league can't make."
Davis said he has concentrated this spring on refining "technical stuff." He also has worked to make sure the ball stays in his hands.
Last season, Sarkisian pulled Davis from games several times because of fumbles.
"I was harder on myself than the coaches were," Davis said, adding, "At some points during the season, I got kind of down on myself a little bit… My mind-set going forward is that 'it's the next play, forget about it.'"
Davis' role in the upcoming season will be dictated in part by Madden's availability.
The 6-1, 225-pound Madden is working to recapture the physical condition that two years ago enabled him to rush for more than 100 yards in four of the first five games.
Madden had overcome major knee surgery that sidelined him in 2012. A hamstring injury slowed or sidelined him in the second half of the 2013 season, and he sat out last season because of what was initially diagnosed as a toe injury.
Madden took a major step this week when coaches inserted him into 11-on-11 situations, though none with direct contact.
The two veterans will be challenged by a trio of newcomers.
Jones, 6 feet and 185 pounds, rushed for 2,009 yards and 28 touchdowns last season at McKinney (Texas) North High. The 6-foot, 200-pound Ware rushed for 2,440 yards and 34 touchdowns for Cedar Hill (Texas) High. Dominic Davis, 5-10 and 185 pounds, is a dual threat as a runner and receiver.
"They're different, maybe, in some of their strengths and weaknesses but they are complete backs," Sarkisian said.
Justin Davis this week recalled how veteran running backs such as Silas Redd showed him the way during his freshman season.
Now, he will be the mentor for young players.
"I have enough experience under my belt to show them the right way," he said. "I know the playbook inside and out. Whatever questions they have, I think I can do a pretty good job of answering."
But Davis said he would approach summer camp with the same mind-set he utilized as a freshman.
"I have some things to work at," he said. "Nothing's going to be given to me."