As USC’s leading returning rusher, with eight touchdowns to his name last season, Vavae Malepeai might seem like the obvious choice, on paper, to carry the heaviest load in a deep rotation of running backs.
But as Malepeai tweaked his knee and missed Monday’s practice, the remaining members of that rotation made the case that they’re capable of carrying their own weight in the Trojans’ running game this season.
In fact, coach Clay Helton seems to prefer it that way. Last season, three of USC’s backs received at least 80 carries. On Monday, Helton made it clear that new coordinator Graham Harrell’s offense will include multiple backs, each of whom will be used based on the situation. Sometimes, maybe even together in the same backfield.
As far as who might lead the way in that group — and how often they might carry the ball — that hasn’t been much of a consideration yet. Helton reiterated only that Harrell’s offense will “take what the defense gives us.” But with the pads coming on this week, the pecking order at running back could become more clear in the practices to come.
When they do, redshirt freshman Markese Stepp could prove himself worthy of further opportunity. A bruising, physical runner at 235 pounds, Stepp caught the attention of USC’s offensive staff Monday in Malepeai’s absence. He could fill a crucial, short-yardage role for an offense that struggled to pound the ball a year ago.
“We were able to see Markese really carry the load in between the tackles, which was nice to see,” Helton said. “When you start getting those pads on, you’ll see how big of a load he is.”
At various times over the past two seasons, Stephen Carr was also billed for a bigger role in the Trojans’ backfield. But injuries derailed both of his first two seasons at USC, slowing his development.
Early on, Helton said, those issues finally seem to be behind the junior running back.
“I really see a healthy Stephen Carr for the first time in a while,” Helton said. “To see that burst back and that lack of hesitation, with a little more confidence, that was great to see.”
Whether Stepp or Carr will be able to unseat Malepeai as the offense’s top rusher remains to be seen. But as Malepeai remains “day to day” with a knee injury, both should get plenty of chances to prove they are worthy of taking the lead.
Inside linebacker Jordan Iosefa left practice with a knee injury and will have an MRI exam. … USC athletic director Lynn Swann attended practice for the first time during fall camp.