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For the first time since Reggie Bush and Lendale White, two USC backs eye 1,000 yards

As USC's only senior running back, Justin Davis is reliable and experienced.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Justin Davis is used to answering the questions of his fellow running backs. Davis is reliable and experienced, USC’s only senior tailback. Running backs coach Tommie Robinson calls him “the old man, he’s the gray beard guy,” and the younger teammates seek out his counsel.

When Davis has a question, though, he turns to sophomore Ronald Jones II. Usually, he wants to know one thing.

“I just ask him how he’s so fast,” Davis said.

“I didn’t have anything for him,” Jones said.

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No freshman in USC’s history has run for more yards than Jones did last season — not Reggie Bush, Charles White or Marcus Allen. Jones ran for 987 yards (averaging 6.5 yards per carry) for eight touchdowns.

Yet, Davis is considered, even by Jones, to be the more well-rounded back, able to recognize defenses, protect the quarterback and run refined routes from the backfield. He rushed for 902 (5.3 average) yards and seven touchdowns last season, and is listed as the starter on USC’s depth chart heading into the first week.

It presents USC a question of division: How do they split up the carries?

“In today’s modern game of balanced pro-style offense, you need two backs,” Coach Clay Helton said. “And sometimes three.”

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But Helton indicated Davis would likely play more snaps.

“If you look at the every-down back, it’s Justin,” Helton said. “And RoJo’s been a great fastball for us.”

The plan might surprise most national publications, which tend to favor Jones. Athlon Sports named him to the second-team All-Pac 12 Conference in the preseason, tempted by performances like last year’s game against Arizona, when he broke out for 177 yards. Davis hardly made the list at all; he was on the fourth team.

USC did find it difficult to deny Jones the ball last season, but the coaching staff’s confidence in Davis generally won out. Davis ran the ball more often in all but two games after Helton took over from Steve Sarkisian.

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Helton indicated the carries could be close to even, which would give both a shot to reach 1,000 yards, a mark both nearly eclipsed last season.

“We were tripping out about it,” Jones said. “We wanted five more carries each in that last game.”

USC hasn’t had two 1,000-yard running backs in a season since Bush and Lendale White in 2004. That duo also complemented each other. Bush, the balletic sprinter, provided speed. White, the brawny bulldozer, provided strength.

Jones and Davis have subtler differences. Jones explodes through gaps like a projectile. He ran track briefly this spring and once clocked in at 10.37 seconds in the 100 meters in high school.

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Davis has speed but is more crafty. In practice on Wednesday, he took one handoff and delayed, sensing a crease, then cut through it, just as it opened, for a chunk of yards.

“The thing about Ronald, any play, any given down, he’s going to break one 70 yards, 80 yards,” Davis said. “And it’s kind of cool, because it contrasts with me. I’m more of a shifty type.”

Jones said Davis is “definitely more reliable. He’s the sure-down back. He can play every situation. He’s a quick cut, north-and-south kind of guy, can catch, all that.”

Jones and Davis consult during practice. Jones asks about route running, how to anticipate a defender’s movements,

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“Just stuff that I’ve seen over my three years that maybe he hasn’t seen yet, because he’s still young,” Davis said.

Jones is explosive with the ball in his hands, but he spent the off-season working on everything but actually running the ball. He focused most intensely on refining his pass catching. Since spring practice, Helton has lauded his improvement, and he expects Jones to surpass his seven receptions for 39 yards from last season. But his hands remain inconsistent.

When the running backs ran a drill on Tuesday, practicing catching play-action passes in the flats, Jones dropped one of his first passes, a good strike to his chest. On the very next repetition, Davis threw out one hand and caught a ball thrown well behind him. In full-team drills, another pass in the flats went through Jones’ hands.

Robinson cautioned against framing the position as a two-way race. He noted that in his last stint at USC, in 2013, the leading rusher was Javorius Allen. Allen began the season as the fourth-string back — the backup to the backup’s backup.

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“Could we get two 1,000-yard rushers? Yeah,” Robinson said. “It’ll probably be Dominic [Davis] and James Toland.”

That’s not likely, this season. But Davis said, he and Jones are content to split carries. The arrangement works for both, he said.

“It’s not, ‘I want these carries, get out, it’s mine,’ ” Davis said. “It’s all a team effort.”

Quick hits

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Injured left tackle Chad Wheeler, who has been sidelined with plantar fasciitis for most of the preseason, ran on an anti-gravity treadmill, at 90% of his weight, and reported feeling no pain, according to Helton. Helton said he hopes Wheeler can do limited football-related work at some point this week. “It’s looking good right now,” Helton said. “I’d say it’s a 50-50 chance he plays in that game.” … Safety Marvell Tell III (hamstring) participated in team activities on Wednesday and played in seven-on-seven drills.

Dylan Hernandez contributed to this report.

zach.helfand@latimes.com

Twitter: @zhelfand

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