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Justin Davis emerges as USC's clear featured running back

Justin Davis emerges as USC's clear featured running back
USC running back Justin Davis completes a 37-yard touchdown run against Arizona State at the Coliseum on Oct. 1. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Justin Davis stood on USC’s practice field one day this week, flicking his wrist and holding it out above his chest.

“It's kind of like an NBA shooter,” Davis was saying, by way of explaining his recent surge in production.

NBA shooters, he implied, sometimes settle into a rhythm the more shots they take. It is, he said, like being a running back.

"The more touches on the ball you get, the more comfortable you get," he said, adding that it also helps you get "more in tune with the game."

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USC has fed Davis the ball recently and he has caught fire. Davis has had four 100-yard games in his career. Two have come in USC's past two games —126 yards on 10 carries against Utah and 123 yards on 14 carries against Arizona State. He scored a touchdown in both games.

Davis has been listed as USC's starting running back for the entire season, but the Trojans were expected to use a two-pronged attack at running back, with Ronald Jones II, last season's leading rusher, sharing carries with Davis.

But with Jones struggling to get started, Davis has emerged as the clear featured back. After the Utah game, when Davis shined in the first half but got zero fourth-quarter carries, Coach Clay Helton said he’d like to get him 20 to 25 touches each game.

It is the culmination of a steady development process for Davis, who has gradually picked up each part of the position.

"The ball would bounce off his facemask when he first got here," Helton said. "Had never pass protected, never really had natural ball skills. He's worked at that and really has become a complete back."

The missing piece this season was explosiveness. Before the season, even Davis expected Jones to be the back with the highlight-reel runs. But USC challenged Davis to turn modest first-down runs into bigger plays.

Against Arizona State, he ripped off several explosive runs: a 37-yard touchdown run, another rush for 49 yards and a 21-yard reception that put USC on the goal line.

While Jones has appeared overly anxious — sometimes charging into a hole too quickly — Davis exhibited more patience.

"He understands, it may not look great now, but when I hit the hole, it's gonna be there," offensive coordinator Tee Martin said.

Helton expressed confidence that Jones would break loose.

"He's ready for a breakout game," he said. "He's gonna have it. It's coming. We all know it."

In the meantime, USC has reconfigured its running-back rotation, with Davis playing the more traditional role of No. 1 running back.

"If my number's called upon, I just make sure I take advantage of every opportunity called," Davis said. "And that doesn't matter if it's five carries, doesn't matter if it's 20."

Zach Banner doubtful

Right tackle Zach Banner jogged lightly onto the field in the middle of USC's practice on Wednesday. He was not wearing pads.

For the second week in a row, USC isn't optimistic that Banner, who sprained his ankle on the last play against Utah, will be able to play.

Helton said "at best" there is a 50 percent chance he could play. "Not looking promising," he added

USC hadn't expected Banner's injury to be serious. Last week, Helton thought Banner would be able to participate fully in practice before USC played Arizona State.

The injury, though, has lingered. Banner attempted to practice on Tuesday, but after feeling pain USC shut him down. He received a platelet-rich plasma injection on Wednesday.

"He's able to run, change direction," Helton said. "But a 360-pound man pushing other individuals, that's where he's struggling right now."

Quick hits

Police shot and killed a man wielding a machete inside Colorado's sports complex on Wednesday. The incident took place while Colorado was practicing nearby, but Coach Mike MacIntyre said the team was unaware of the shooting until afterward. "The kids did not know what was going on whatsoever while we were practicing," he told reporters. "We explained to them after practice." MacIntyre said the coaching staff wasn't permitted into their offices, inside the sports complex, for part of Wednesday. … Safety Ykili Ross (shoulder sprain) and linebacker Jabari Ruffin (concussion protocol) are doubtful to play against Colorado, Helton said. ... Tight end Taylor McNamara (strained back) returned to practice Wednesday, but he was limited.

zach.helfand@latimes.com

Twitter: @zhelfand

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