Who is USC’s best running back?
Ask four different people and you might get four different answers. The beauty of it for the Trojans is that they all figure to be on the 2020 roster. Having quality depth is a welcome sight after being shorthanded throughout the post-sanctions era.
That appeared to be the case again just three months ago, when there were question marks everywhere. Redshirt junior Vavae Malepeai had never been a starter, much less featured. Junior Stephen Carr was mostly ineffective in 2018. Redshirt freshman Markese Stepp had barely played, and there was more discussion about what he couldn’t do than could. True freshman Kenan Christon struggled to usurp former walk-on Quincy Jountti on the depth chart.
Not exactly the 95 Cornhuskers.
But all four USC backs outplayed expectations, even if the sum wasn’t as great as its parts. The Trojans averaged just 4.1 yards per carry in the regular season, only that number is severely impacted by 24 sacks. The four primary rushers combined to average 5.4 yards a carry while also catching 39 passes and scoring 19 total touchdowns. Moreover, they did it in their own ways.
"We got a dangerous backfield," Malepeai said. "Everybody has different abilities, different styles of running. Everyone has different strengths."
Malepeai (4.8 ypc) is the most complete player, and his decisiveness makes him a real weapon in the red zone. Carr (5.5 ypc) is the best receiver, and his shiftiness makes him a constant big-play threat. Stepp (6.4 ypc) is the most productive and consistent, and his bigger frame enables him to get the hard yards that often aren’t there. Christon (5.6 ypc) is the fastest, and he's proven more versatile than advertised after being thrown into the fire.
Running backs coach Mike Jinks freely admitted the extent to which they all grew was an unexpected development.
“It’s better,” Jinks said. “It’s better than I anticipated, absolutely.”
USC hasn’t had this strong of a stable at running back since at least 2013, when Tre Madden, Buck Allen, Justin Davis, Silas Redd and Ty Isaac split carries. It was the end of a run that had begun in the second half of the Pete Carroll dynasty, where USC almost seemed too deep at tailback.
That certainly wasn’t the case this year. All four primary backs never appeared in the same game, initially by choice but later because of injuries. (It might finally happen in December, as Stepp could be available for the Pac-12 title game, should USC make it, and will definitely be back in time for the bowl game.)
UCLA was the first contest since the middle of the season in which even three of the four were available. Perhaps it isn’t a coincidence then that USC had its best offensive output of the season this past weekend.
Kedon Slovis passed for a USC-record 515 yards, while Malepeai, Carr and Christon averaged 6.7 yards per attempt. Their 23 collective carries were the most from the running backs since the Arizona game that saw both Carr and Stepp go down, just one week after Malepeai was sidelined.
“We’ve missed that. When you can keep fresh backs in there and they have a little different styles,” offensive coordinator Graham Harrell said. “When you see Vae and Carr getting lots of yards after contact, it puts the defense in a bind. You kind of have to make a decision: Are you going to load up that box and leave those guys vulnerable with four grown horses out there, or are you going to empty out the box and let Vae and Carr run wild?
“To have a healthy stable makes a huge difference.”
USC still has things to figure out up front, of course. The offensive line didn’t generate a consistent push, as evidenced by the run game sometimes disappearing before injuries set in. But if the Trojans can remain relatively healthy at running back next year, and it’s a big if given that they were down to just Christon for three games this season, their biggest challenge will be figuring out whom to use and when.
However the coaching staff shakes out, this position group figures to be one of USC’s best on either side of the ball in 2020.
“To survive what we went through was pretty unique,” Jinks said. “It’s a special group. I can’t wait to get them all healthy and watch them compete.”
-- Adam Maya is a USC graduate and has been covering the Trojans since 2003. Follow him on Twitter @AdamJMaya.