What We Learned: The Real Reasons USC RB Markese Stepp Hasn't Played More
Markese Stepp was initially hit just inside the 4-yard-line, by a pair of Notre Dame linemen. Four more would get a hand on him before he barreled his way into the end zone -- with a lift from left guard Alijah Vera-Tucker -- for one of the more impressive 2-yard touchdown runs you’ll see.
The carry was the last of several in which Stepp dragged defenders en route to his most memorable performance to date. The 235-pound redshirt freshman turned his 10 touches into a career-high 82 yards, with most of them coming after contact.
“It fires us up,” center Brett Neilon said. “Obviously Markese is a tough runner. We’ve known that for a while.”
We all have. Stepp has been asserting himself as the Trojans’ most physically imposing back since spring practice. The more work he’s gotten in games, he’s proven to be their best back.
So why has USC been reluctant to use him as such?
The short answer is he hadn’t earned the staff’s trust amid two veterans at his position. Offensive coordinator Graham Harrell spelled out the concerns in the aftermath of the Notre Dame game, when Stepp led USC in rushing attempts for the first time all season.
“We have to work on his ball security at times, blitz pickup at times,” Harrell said. "But he’s getting better and better every week. We’re proud of that. The more reps he gets, I think the better player he is, because he sees more things, not only in the run game but the pass game. So it’s great to get him reps. I’m proud of the way he’s battled all year. Obviously his role has increased as the year’s gone on because we got more comfortable putting him in. but we got a lot of special players that need touches and he’s one of them.”
Expect Stepp to set a new career high for carries this Saturday against Arizona. Starter Vavae Malepeai underwent surgery Tuesday to clean out his knee, which has been bothering him since the BYU game. (There’s currently no timetable for his return.) Moreover, the Trojans have averaged 270.3 rushing yards over the last six meeting with the Wildcats -- all of which USC has won.
Harrell intimated USC’s three-back rotation will be cut to two this weekend.
“When they’re fresh, we got two pretty special backs playing there,” Harrell said. “If they get a little gassed, we’ll figure it out. We’re going to let those guys roll, kind of like we did with Carr and Vae early on. If we get a hot hand, we’ll feed the hot hand. But at the same time you got to keep those guys fresh.”
Waiting behind Stepp and Carr are former walk-on Quincy Jountti and true freshman track star Kenan Christon. Neither has registered a carry this seaosn but could step into a minor role if needed. The bigger question is how carries will be disseminated between the top two options.
Stepp’s 10 carries against Notre Dame, matched a season-high yet were just one more than Carr’s nine and only 37 percent of the whole pie. This despite the fact he averaged 8.2 yards an attempt and his 6.9 yards for the season leads the team by more than a yard over Carr (5.8).
Perhaps a smaller rotation will bring out the best in both backs.
“The more carries any running back gets, the better rhythm they get because it’s a better feel for the game and the more they get warmed up,” Stepp said.
The second-year back then validated Harrell’s constructive criticism, particularly with how he carries the ball. Fumbling hasn’t been an issue in practice or in games -- he’s coughed up the ball once this season and recovered it himself. But the staff is working with him on his tendency to hold the ball low and switch arms in traffic.
“I haven’t fumbled right now, but if I continue to carry like that I could lead to that,” Stepp said. “The No. 1 thing as a running back is to protect the ball. If you put the ball on the ground, you can’t be trusted.”
And that’s basically what his playing time has come down to -- trust. Stepp’s talent is obvious, and his style is infectious. But the coaches have sacrificed some production for reliability. To this end, Stepp has rarely been used in pass protection or as a receiver. The catch-22 is that he needs more snaps to grow in those areas.
He was arguably USC’s most impactful player against Notre Dame this past Saturday yet played only 17 snaps. That disparity is one reason he’s been asked about as much as any Trojan outside of quarterback Kedon Slovis through the first six games of the season. The talking point has clearly run its course with the USC coaching staff.
“I think Markese has got a tremendous future,” an irritated Mike Jinks said on camera Tuesday when asked if Stepp had picked up the nuances of his position enough to assume a larger role. The USC running backs coach then leaned in and whispered, “Let’s not anoint him too quickly.”
-- Adam Maya is a USC graduate and has been covering the Trojans since 2003. Follow him on Twitter @AdamJMaya.