RYAN KNIGHT : Time Running Out for Him at USC, but Dreams Die Hard

Times Staff Writer

It hasn't been a particularly fruitful journey for Ryan Knight, the erstwhile Heisman Trophy candidate whose modest totals led USC in rushing the last two seasons, but who now finds himself listed as a backup.

The senior tailback has spent his entire college career moving up and down the depth chart.

And using him as a regular always seems to be a last resort.

This season, he is listed behind the heretofore anonymous Steve Webster, a speedy but injury-prone junior who has played in only 1 of USC's last 21 games but who showed enough in spring practice to be handed the starting job.

"Some people just don't think I'm a very good football player," Knight said the other day at UC Irvine, where the Trojans are practicing this week.

Certainly, he has not lived up to most people's enormous expectations, including his own.

Not long after deciding to become a Trojan, following a record-breaking career at Rubidoux High School in Riverside, Knight was asked about USC's Heisman Trophy winners.

"I admire them all but I don't want to be like them," he said. "I want to be better."

That he has fallen far short of that lofty aspiration has been well documented.

A strong but not particularly fast runner, Knight has averaged just 3.8 yards a carry at USC, his average output decreasing each of the last two seasons. His longest gain last season, when he led the Trojans in rushing with 536 yards, was 11 yards.

"My first three years at USC haven't been everything I expected them to be," Knight said. "But I cannot say they've been disappointing, either.

"The most important thing I've learned is how to battle through adversity. And the best part about it is, I've been able to overcome that adversity and stay on top."

Actually, he hasn't stayed on top, but he always seems to wind up there by the end of the season.

Two years ago, he fell from second string all the way to fourth because of an ankle injury, only to work himself back into the starting lineup for the last four games of the season when starter Fred Crutcher went down with an injury.

He led USC with 732 yards, 147 of them against UCLA's nation-leading rushing defense.

Last season, he started the first four games, but carried 21 fewer times than Aaron Emanuel, who finally took over as the starter for the next four games. An injury took Emanuel out of the lineup and put Knight back in.

And now, with Emanuel suspended for a year and Webster nursing an ankle injury, Knight may fall into the job again.

Webster has yet to participate in contact drills this fall, and Clarence Shelmon, who coaches the Trojan running backs, said this week that Webster may not be ready for the Trojans' opener on Sept. 7 at Michigan State.

But even if Webster is able to play and Knight continues to run No. 2 on the depth chart, it won't be for a lack of effort on Knight's part.

A muscular 6-footer, he has dropped almost 10 pounds this summer through dieting and extra running. After playing at 210 pounds last season, he hopes to play at about 200 this season.

He has continued to refine his running technique with Trojan assistant track coach Don Quarrie, a former Olympic gold medalist. And more frequent work with weights has enabled him to increase his leg press by 150 pounds, he said.

He said he's stronger, lighter and faster than he has ever been.

"I have a lot more confidence that I'll break a lot of longer runs this season," he said. "I think I can be a much more efficient back."

But he would rather do it than talk about it. Last week, he asked that his contacts with reporters be limited, telling the school's sports information office that he wants to remain focused on football and cut down on distractions.

"It wasn't anything personal against the media but I'm getting ready to play Michigan State and play the best I possibly can to help our team win," he said during a brief interview. "I thought the best way to do that was not by talking in the newspapers, but to show it out on the field."

He said that losing his job to Webster last spring has provided motivation, but added that he bears no resentment to the coaching staff.

"I felt that Webster had honestly won the position," he said. "I felt that he had out-performed me. And, you know, I'm man enough where I can admit that.

"I said, 'Ryan, you had a good spring, but Webster out-performed you in the scrimmages.' And so I told myself that there are certain things that I can do to make myself a better player this summer and I'm going to focus on those things and come back and beat him out in the fall."

Not having the recuperating Webster to act as a yardstick has not deterred him, Knight said.

"I'm not really competing against Steve Webster," he said. "I'm competing against Ryan Knight, trying to make Ryan Knight the best ballplayer he can be. I'm daring myself to be better than I was yesterday. I'm daring myself to practice harder than I did yesterday, to push myself harder when times are tough."

His effort has not gone unnoticed. Coach Larry Smith called Knight "a hard-working son of a gun" and said that even after Webster returns, Knight will still get a chance to play. He said that Knight's slashing style complements the more elusive Webster's.

"He's a strong inside runner," Shelmon, the running back coach, said of Knight. "We'd like to be able to use a little more speed in there, but I think what we'll do is call plays he's capable of producing. We're not going to ask him to do things he can't do.

"He doesn't have the innate quickness and speed to pick and choose and then accelerate and get through (the line)."

Still, noting that he always seems to find his way to the top of the depth chart, Shelmon described Knight as a survivor.

He's been called worse, of course, but Knight said: "I know that I'm a damn good running back. And that's why I've taken this attitude this fall.

"My confidence is so high right now. I've done so much work this summer that I know it's going to pay off. I know something good is going to happen for me."

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