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Tailbacks Have a Directive

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

The catch phrase for the USC offense during spring practice has been “big-little.”

No more tailbacks hesitating in the backfield, looking to break a touchdown run and too often risking a two-yard loss. Offensive coordinator Norm Chow wants his ballcarriers to hit the hole fast and get those “big-little” gains of three or four yards that keep a drive going. All the better to set up a second- or third-and-short for quarterback Carson Palmer who, given new freedom to move around the pocket, has shown increasing command.

There is still the matter of an offensive line that lacks depth and struggled last season but, as spring workouts conclude with a scrimmage today, the Trojans believe they have addressed their shortcomings on offense so evident in a 10-6 loss to Utah in the Las Vegas Bowl four months ago.

“We needed to develop our style of running the football,” Coach Pete Carroll said. “Obviously, our chances have been enhanced by the tailback situation we have.”

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Sultan McCullough is back after an abdominal injury sidelined him midway through last season. Malaefou MacKenzie, who hasn’t played in a year, has been granted an extra season of eligibility. Perhaps most important, Justin Fargas is ready to go.

If the Trojans started the season tomorrow, all three backs would play, Carroll said. But it is the quick, strong Fargas whose name appears in bold letters atop the depth chart.

“Last year, sometimes the running game was struggling,” said the senior, who sat out after transferring from Michigan. “I felt like I could get in there and make some yards and help the team win.”

Coaches hope the tailbacks can take pressure off a line that has five returning starters and little else. With center Norm Katnik headed for surgery after injuring his thumb this week, the same five or six linemen will play for both squads in today’s scrimmage.

It’s no surprise Carroll spent much of his end-of-spring news conference Friday talking about recruits Winston Justice and Fred Matua. The situation, he said, requires the team to “ask our young guys to work right in there. Our freshmen have to compete.”

There are similar depth problems on the other side of the ball, where the Trojans were strongest last season but must replace both cornerbacks, a linebacker and a defensive end.

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Melvin Simmons, a transfer from Washington State, used spring practice to establish himself at linebacker. In the secondary, Kevin Arbet has looked steady and Marcell Allmond, a converted receiver, appears to be acclimating to his new surroundings. He would play nickel back at this point.

The other starter on the corner is Darrell Rideaux, a senior who has speed but stands only 5 feet 9. Carroll has raved about his improvement. The defense should get a lift from the return of linebacker Matt Grootegoed and nose tackle Bernard Riley, both of whom missed spring practice because of injuries but are expected at training camp in August. In the meantime, Shaun Cody and Mike Patterson have led the defensive front.

The other big news has been punter Tom Malone from Temescal Canyon High. He has boomed his kicks over the practice-field fence.

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