At USC, six is a crowd at tailback
C.J. Gable could not contain it.
Nor could Allen Bradford.
Last season, frustration over their roles in USC’s tailback rotation boiled over and they made their feelings known publicly.
As the Trojans prepare for the Sept. 5 opener against San Jose State, both players say they’re ready for a fresh start.
But with four upperclassmen among six tailbacks, running backs coach Todd McNair acknowledges that his position group is ripe for psychodrama.
This is the fourth year in college for Gable, Bradford and Stafon Johnson, the third for Joe McKnight.
The NFL is within their reach, and McNair can no longer preach patience when it comes to playing time.
“It’s managing their emotions and psyches,” McNair says, chuckling. “I have to play psychiatrist -- analyze this!”
“I might have to move my couch from my office to the meeting room.”
Third-year sophomore Marc Tyler and redshirt freshman Curtis McNeal are also part of a tailback corps that is expected to ease the transition to a new quarterback and help the Trojans contend for a national title.
The challenge, once again, will be keeping the tailbacks productive, if not happy.
New play-caller Jeremy Bates says he has yet to settle on a plan.
Also noncommittal is Coach Pete Carroll.
“I always used to think . . . you have to have one tailback and he plays forever,” Carroll says.
“I’ve transitioned out of that, and I could go back easily depending on the guy. I just think it’s a matter of being open-minded to what’s right.”
If USC were to adopt a one- or two-back system, McKnight would undoubtedly be a centerpiece.
Carroll has been enamored of McKnight’s breakaway ability from the moment he arrived on campus from Louisiana. Despite a habit for fumbling not otherwise tolerated from other backs and return specialists, McKnight will get his touches running the ball or as a receiver.
Injuries and assorted maladies struck McKnight last season, but he still averaged 7.4 yards a carry.
If McKnight stays healthy, and productive, McNair says “He could wind up being the alpha dog.”
Johnson, the most consistent runner and dependable short-yardage weapon, is positioned to get more than his share of carries. Gable’s all-around game, especially his blocking, will put him on the field, though his carries might be even more limited if the fumbling that plagued him in USC’s final two games last season continues.
Bradford remains the great mystery. The former Colton High star is forcing himself to believe that this year will be different, that the coaches will give him more than a very limited opportunity to provide the powerful and aggressive style he annually displays during training camp. But if three backs are a crowd, what are four?
Tyler and McNeal seem destined to play the role Broderick Green filled last season before transferring: a fourth or fifth back who might get a bigger opportunity against overmatched opponents such as Washington State.
Regardless of how it might play out, Carroll says he is not worried about it.
That’s the same attitude Johnson adopted over the last two seasons when he emerged as perhaps the Trojans most dependable runner.
In 2008, he rushed for 705 yards in 138 carries, both team highs. Not surprisingly, he advocates the status quo.
“We’ve been doing this so far, why mess with it now?” he says. “We get a lot of positive things out of it.”
Gable has reason to feel differently.
Last season, he started every game and finished the season with 617 yards in 107 carries.
But Gable, who redshirted in 2007, was angry when he got only five carries against Arizona after a big performance at Washington State.
He also fumed after he was benched for fumbling early in the regular-season finale against UCLA.
Gable contemplated leaving for the NFL but returned to increase his pro stock and finish his degree.
“I’m just going to go with the flow and try not to get mad this year,” he says.
Bradford is of a similar mind-set.
Last season, after he got no carries in the Trojans’ loss at Oregon State, Bradford said he should be a bigger part of the offense. Shortly thereafter, he was diagnosed with a hip injury and had season-ending surgery that allowed him to redshirt.
Bradford has impressed during training camp while emerging as a team leader.
“I think this year I’m going to have the opportunity to do what I can do,” he says. “The coach is starting to believe in me.”
And if he doesn’t get enough carries?
“I’m going to handle it like a pro,” Bradford says, grinning. “That’s all I can say on that. I’m going to handle it like a pro.”
McKnight’s main concern is remaining healthy after an injury-plagued 2008 season.
“In high school, I really never got the ball that much so it’s not a factor to me,” McKnight says. “I’m good with whatever I get and will make the best of whatever I get.”
Remaining physically sound is also Tyler’s foremost concern.
For the first time, Tyler is showing no ill effects from the broken leg that ended his senior season in high school and affected his first two with the Trojans.
Tyler is eager for an opportunity, but recognizes a pecking order.
“They’re not going to put me in front of a guy like Stafon or C.J., who’ve been starting since they’ve been here,” he says. “You just have to be ready when they call on you.”
The smallish McNeal, generously listed at 5 feet 8, is hoping to become a regular part of the rotation.
“When you go to USC, you know there’s a lot of guys at the position, you know you’re going to wait,” he says. “I try not to let it get to me. I want to play a lot.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
STAFON JOHNSON :: 5-11, 210, SENIOR
Returning rushing leader is dependable yard producer and also go-to back in short-yardage situations.
JOE McKNIGHT :: 6-0, 190, JUNIOR*
X-factor not only for defensive coordinators but also for tailback rotation. If McKnight gets rolling, the others could be left behind. And angry.
C.J. GABLE :: 6-0, 200, JUNIOR*
Still the best pass blocker and most well-rounded back. If he holds on to the ball and keeps temper in check, he will have large role.
ALLEN BRADFORD :: 5-11, 235, JUNIOR*
Appears healthy after hip surgery. Emerging as team leader but wants power-back carries to add to his resume.
MARC TYLER :: 6-0, 225, SOPHOMORE*
Happy to be healthy and recognizes where he stands in pecking order. Will take what he gets with eye toward next season.
CURTIS McNEAL :: 5-8, 190, FRESHMAN*
Runs with speed and power that makes him more than a smallish diversion. Jumping past the upperclassmen, though, will be difficult.
*used redshirt season
-- Gary Klein
USC season opener
Sept. 5 vs. San Jose State
12:30 p.m., Coliseum, FSN
Go beyond the scoreboard
Get the latest on L.A.'s teams in the daily Sports Report newsletter.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.