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Impact of McKnight, Griffen has been limited in early going

Times Staff Writer

USC’s 2007 recruiting class was judged by many to be the nation’s best after Joe McKnight signed with the Trojans.

The speedy running back from Louisiana reminded USC coaches of Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush and Coach Pete Carroll planned to utilize him in much the same way.

McKnight’s impact, however, has thus far been negligible.

Asked Wednesday if USC had seen the real Joe McKnight, the 6-foot, 180-pound freshman said, “No.”

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McKnight, sidelined for several weeks of training camp because of a knee bruise, carried six times for 26 yards and caught one pass for eight yards in the opener against Idaho.

Last Saturday against Nebraska, playing without a knee brace, McKnight carried once for five yards. He also caught a pass but fumbled.

McKnight disagreed with Carroll’s postgame assessment that coaches might have overloaded him with too much too soon.

“I really don’t agree with it -- I can handle what they give me,” he said.

McKnight, however, acknowledged frustration and said Carroll had counseled him about remaining confident.

“He was just telling me to relax and go play football,” McKnight said. “He’s going to start handing me the ball off more. That was it.”

McKnight can thank Bush for creating expectations, though it should be noted that Bush rushed for 28 yards in 11 carries and caught one pass for minus-six yards in his first two games at USC in 2003.

Bush broke out some in his third game when he scored two touchdowns against Hawaii. Fellow freshman LenDale White also scored twice that day, inspiring former Times sportswriter Paul Gutierrez to dub it a “Thunder and Lightning ground game.”

Offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian accepted blame for McKnight’s early struggles.

“It’s my fault that I haven’t given him a lot of those opportunities just to hand him the ball and let him play running back,” Sarkisian said. “We’ve had him do a lot of different things and in turn I think that’s really slowed him down some.”

Sarkisian said the Trojans remained confident in McKnight and would not make him one-dimensional.

“We’ll still have some things for him but it’s not going to be 10 to 12 plays of a bunch of stuff that’s not lining up behind the quarterback,” he said.

Like McKnight, freshman defensive end Everson Griffen began the season with high expectations.

He started but did not make a tackle against Idaho, then made two tackles in a reserve role against Nebraska.

Carroll said Griffen (6 feet 3, 265 pounds) possesses great speed but “doesn’t always use it effectively,” because he becomes overanxious.

Carroll expects that Griffen will improve with experience.

“Right now, he’s kind of running into guys,” Carroll said.

With Brian Cushing (ankle) still struggling to gain full mobility and Clay Matthews (broken thumb) practicing in a soft cast, senior Thomas Williams could start at strong-side linebacker on Saturday against Washington State.

Williams played extensively against Nebraska and made two tackles.

Carroll said Cushing’s status might not be determined until game time.

“He’s trying to make it through the day each day, really, more than really flying around and being able to be freewheeling,” Carroll said.

Redshirt quarterback Mitch Mustain has a higher profile, but freshman receiver Brandon Carswell also is turning heads by making scout team plays reminiscent of David Ausberry.

Ausberry redshirted in 2006 and parlayed daily work against the first-team defense into a starting position this season.

The 6-2, 175-pound Carswell, who has been especially impressive in the air, is on track to redshirt.

“I think I can surprise some people,” said Carswell, who is from Milpitas, Calif. “I just have to be ready for the opportunity.”

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gary.klein@latimes.com


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