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USC issued a challenge to running backs, and senior Stephen Carr has answered it

USC running back Stephen Carr carries the ball against Arizona.
Running back Stephen Carr has impressed the USC coaching staff in training camp ahead of the Trojans’ season opener against Arizona State on Nov. 7.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

When doling out opportunities during his first season as USC‘s running backs coach, Mike Jinks usually didn’t have many options. Injuries tended to make the hard choices for him.

Vavae Malepeai, the Trojans’ leading rusher, missed five games with a knee injury in the middle of the season. Markese Stepp, their most efficient back, missed six games at the end after ankle surgery. Kenan Christon, their freshman speedster, didn’t receive a carry until the seventh week. And Stephen Carr, their healthiest back, still missed three games with a hamstring injury.

Almost a year later, USC’s backfield still doesn’t have an entirely clean bill of health. Malepeai is shaking off his own hamstring injury and Stepp still is slowly working back his way back into form.

All four backs are expected to be ready for the start of this shortened season on Nov. 7, and Jinks assured that each will have a role. But after a near-even split a season ago, all four have been challenged during USC’s training camp to “step up and be that alpha,” Jinks said Tuesday.

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Bru McCoy, the highly touted newcomer to the USC receiving corps, could play a big part in the Trojans’ offense — if he can get regular targets.

Carr seems to have taken that edict seriously. Coach Clay Helton said Monday that Carr has had “his best camp to date,” while Jinks was similarly effusive in his praise of the senior all-purpose back.

“He looks as good as he’s ever been since I’ve been here,” Jinks said.

Over the previous two seasons, Carr never quite matched the standard he set in the first four games of his freshman year, when he averaged 107 total yards per game and scored three times. He’s equaled that yardage just three times and added eight touchdowns in the 25 games since.

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But as practices turned to full pads last week, coaches say they’ve seen a different version of Carr, one that dances less at the line of scrimmage and welcomes more contact in between the tackles. Both Jinks and Helton said Carr “set the tone” with his physicality during the first full-contact practice.

“I just want to be more physical this year,” Carr said. “That’s really the only thing on my mind. The college world has seen a lot of what I can do when it comes to catching the ball out of the backfield, making people miss.”

Fans aren’t being allowed to attend USC and UCLA football games because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but families of players want to be able to be inside the stadium.

A healthy hamstring should help on both accounts. After that injury sapped some of Carr’s trademark explosiveness last year, Jinks said the senior added five or six inches to his vertical leap this offseason.

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That burst isn’t the only mark of his improvement. Carr said he spent the offseason studying tape of Ronald Jones II, the former Trojans back starting for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and still watches clips of him before some practices.

Mentally, Carr said, he’s never felt more prepared.

The obstacles standing in the way of USC’s other running backs this offseason were primarily physical ones. Christon added 10 pounds over quarantine, in order to help shore up his pass protection. Stepp, who was listed last season at 235 pounds, was challenged to cut 10 pounds and has since looked more explosive and confident, Jinks said.

Stepp was routinely the most effective of USC’s running backs when given the chance during his redshirt freshman season. Among Pac-12 backs, his 6.4 yards per carry trailed only Washington State’s Max Borghi.

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But with his trajectory slowed by an injury, every Trojans back is expected to have an equal opportunity. Carr has made the most of those chances so far. But how it shakes out in USC’s backfield is still anyone’s guess.

“They’ve shown that they can all be an every-down back, so it’s kind of not one of those situations where I want to just roll one in on third downs, this, that, or the other,” Jinks said. We’re going to continue to compete and the hot one or the hot two or three will be the guys out there playing.”

Etc.

USC’s Friday night home game against Washington State on Dec. 4 will begin at 6:30 or 7:30 and be televised by FS1.


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