The quarterback is a sophomore with a sore back. He spent most of last week practicing on the rubbing table. The only pads he wore were heated. The fullback had last carried a ball in 1967, as a freshman at Utah. He sat out last season as a transfer student. And the tailback they brought in to replace O.J. Simpson is slower and smaller and, until last Saturday against Nebraska, hadn't played a smidgin of major college football. Right off you know that USC is in trouble. You don't even have to mention that the No. 2 quarterback has a shoulder separation and the guy behind him has a throbbing elbow and a partially numbed throwing hand.
USC's biggest concern is the sophomore quarterback with the aching back—Jimmy Jones (see cover). Jones, one of the very few black quarterbacks in the history of college football, is the gifted youngster the Trojans are hoping will lead them into their fourth straight Rose Bowl. Two years ago he was one of the most sought-after schoolboy quarterbacks in the country. His junior year he ran and passed for 2,300 yards and 20 touchdowns. That was nothing. His senior year it was 2,400 yards and 40 touchdowns. Offers flooded in, 112 of them. Everybody wanted the good-looking kid with the .30-30 arm and speed—and the intelligence that goes with a three-point-plus academic average.
But Jones didn't want them. Not even from the beginning. He told 107 of them "no thank you," visited Ohio State, Penn State, Kansas, Michigan State and USC, and then, quickly, told McKay that he was his. At the same time, Shortstop Jones told a flock of baseball scouts that he didn't believe pro baseball was his lot in life. At least not at the moment.
"Actually, I made up my mind that I wanted to go to USC about halfway through my senior year," said Jones. He smiled, fleetingly—he doesn't often—and added, "I always wanted to go to the Rose Bowl."
And so he came and, like all Trojan freshmen, he sank from public sight. There is no freshman coach. For each game, and there are only three, McKay picks two of his aids to be coaches. Otherwise, the freshmen spend all their time working opponents' plays against the varsity. Jones' freshmen game credentials were good but not startling: 28 of 59 passes for 422 yards and two touchdowns, 27 carries for 120 yards.
"If he went into a game with more than two or three pass patterns he was damn lucky," said McKay. "The freshmen here just don't work together as a unit. That's not their job. Their job is to help the varsity get ready each week."
Then in the spring game Jones surfaced and exciting things began to happen. Playing just a little over 30 minutes, he completed 19 passes for 392 yards and five touchdowns. Like that, the gloom of losing Simpson began to lift. "Oh, no," said USC's rivals. "First O.J., now J.J. Why doesn't McKay take all his Js and...?"
But now it is three days before the opener at Nebraska, and the latest Super J lies pinned to the rubbing table by two pillow-sized heating pads. He has a muscle spasm in the lower back, sore and stiff. He can't even bend over. He's disgusted. And scared. But he's no stranger to pain. As a sophomore in high school, before growing to 6'1" and 190 pounds, he was playing safety when a rival bowled him over, breaking five vertebrae in his neck. He was in traction a week, a body cast three months and a neck brace another six weeks. Five minutes after they took off the neck brace, he went into training for the next football season. Even the school doctor at Harrisburg, Pa. said no, Jones couldn't play anymore. Too risky. His coach, George Chaump, now a Woody Hayes aide at Ohio State, argued, finally taking Jones to an orthopedic surgeon who said the neck was stronger than ever from the exercise. The school doctor still said no and what does an orthopedic surgeon know about it anyway? Chaump gathered positive evidence from several more doctors, then presented it at a hastily called school board meeting the night before the opening game. Jones played. All last week people keep wandering into the USC room, asking about the back, and finally Jones closes his eyes and pretends to be asleep. He doesn't say much anyway: very quiet, almost shy. Ask 20 people at USC for an anecdote about him and they'll think and think and come up empty. "He has a fine sense of humor," says Dave Levy, McKay's No. 1 aide. "But he is the most unhumorous person I've ever met. He's just a nice, quiet, serious kid."
"I think," said Craig Fertig, who went from USC passing star to USC backfield coach five years ago, "that he is waiting until he does something before he talks. He knows he's never played a minute for us, so he's quiet."
Upstairs, McKay, who should be worrying, isn't. At least there's no evidence. "I learned a long time ago that my climbing the walls won't make the pain go away in his back." He neatly slices open an envelope, then laughs. "Look at this, a card to the Playboy Club. Now what am I going to do with that?"
When Jones wakes up Thursday, he can move. There is just a little stiffness on one side, "I think I can run," he says. "Run tomorrow," says McKay. "More heat today." It's back to the table, but the scared feeling is gone.
In Lincoln, Neb. they don't know what to think. They're worried about Jones but don't want to appear too worried. "We're aware of Jones," says Tom Osborne, one of the offensive coaches. He is grinning. "But we didn't want our kids thinking only about him. Suppose he doesn't play, then they'd go out and think they've got it made. But if he plays, our ends think they can contain him."
Bob Devaney, the head coach, comes in. "We realize we got a problem in Jones," he says. "But we also realize he's got some friends who'll give us some problems, too."
It is an hour and a half before game time Saturday. McKay still hasn't made up his mind. He wants to see Jones warm up first. "The kid has a great future," he says. "We're not going to ruin him for just one game."
Jones throws easily with Sam Dickerson, his split end. Then he runs 50 yards, runs 30 more. He tells McKay that there is just a little stiffness, a little pain, but he can play. "O. K.," says McKay. "But no running. Use Clarence more. Just hand off and pass."
Clarence is Clarence Davis, the tailback: C.D. in for O.J. Like that other fellow, he's out of junior college, East Los Angeles JC. All he did there was break O.J.'s national JC rushing record. He's 5'11" and started fall practice at 194 pounds, but by the time he reached Nebraska he had melted to 186. McKay was worried about his stamina. As it turned out, it was like worrying that the Statue of Liberty might tire of holding the torch. Before it was over, and USC had won 31-21, he had plowed through those big slow Cornhuskers 27 times for 114 yards, and doesn't that remind you of someone? In case it doesn't, try this: in his first game for the Trojans O.J. ran 19 times for 94 yards.
Jones was handing off beautifully but he was under orders not to run. His early passes were powerful, too powerful. And too long. USC was into its third series and he had yet to complete a pass. Then he flicked a little three-yard screen to Charlie Evans, the new fullback, who turned it into an 18-yard gain.
"That broke the ice," said someone.
"Yeah," said a scoffer from Nebraska. "That was a helluva pass."
In the huddle Jones was calling a play action pass with Bob Chandler, the marvelous flanker, racing down the sideline. Jones' pass was perfect, 36 yards in the air and Chandler never broke stride as he hauled it in at the nine and scored.
"Now what do you think?"
"Aw," said the Nebraskan, "they've been practicing that all fall." That made it 14-0. USC had scored earlier when it had moved 80 yards, all on the ground. Davis had picked up 57 of them on five carries and then retired for a brief rest. His replacement, Mike Berry, ran one yard for the touchdown.
It looked good. Then Jones, scrambling under a heavy rush, slipped and fumbled, and Nebraska recovered on the USC 45. "Sophomores will do that," McKay would say later. "But I'd still rather have the superior sophomore to the just-average senior."
Nebraska's Van Brownson, himself a sophomore quarterback, moved his troops in to score in just five plays. The first was a pass interference play against USC—one of six called against the Trojans—and the last a two-yard keeper by Brownson.
Earlier in the week McKay had said something else. "I won't take Jimmy out of a ball game because he's not doing well. If he's thrown an interception or fumbled, I'm not going to panic and take him out."
He didn't, and was rewarded. On the second series after his fumble, as the first half was nearing the end, Jones had USC on the Nebraska four, third down. (A 20-yard pass, Jones to End Gary Orcutt, had helped move them there, but a check of the movies might show that Super J was two yards past the line when he released the ball.) McKay sent in a pass play. "Our quarterbacks call most of the plays," he said earlier. "And Jones will call most of his. But"—and he grinned—"we won't rely entirely on his memory in critical situations."
Jones dropped back and found his primary receiver, Dickerson, covered. He looked for his secondary, Chandler—covered. "Then I tried to run," he said later, "but their end slid over and contained me." Back into the middle he scooted. And there was Evans, in the center of the end zone, alone. Zap! Touchdown—21-7.
The Trojans scored again in the third quarter, on another one-yard run by Berry, making it 28-7, and even the Nebraska fans had begun to lose interest when McKay decided his secondary needed some experience with one-on-one pass coverage. And all those interference penalties began popping up.
Nebraska crept to 28-14 on two interference calls, for yards of 31 and five, and a 12-yard run by Jeff Kinney. And then bombed to 28-21 by capturing an onside kick, making a short march and a two-yard run by Jerry Tagge, another sophomore quarterback. "Everybody knew that kick was coming but the 11 guys we had on the field," said McKay. "We told them and they watched it. Then they came off and said, 'Yeah, you were right.' " But the rally unraveled when USC moved to the Nebraska 24 and Ron Ayala kicked a field goal.
Later in the dressing room Jones sat in the steamy semidarkness and said he was glad it was over. It was the back again. He could hardly bend. "It felt good early," he said, shaking his head, "but then it tightened up. It bothered me the whole game. Every time I passed, something would catch back there. Now it's really sore."
For a sore-backed quarterback, someone said, you didn't do too badly. Eight out of 15 passes for 153 yards and two touchdowns.
He smiled, the first victory bringing him out a bit from the shell. "Yeah," he said, "but I think I could have been better if I was 100%. You know, I think I really am ready to go now."
Yeah, that USC, it's in trouble all right. Almost as bad as last year.