USC Football

Spring Forecast: The Running Backs

February 20, 2020

If you were given the opportunity to tell Graham Harrell who should start at running back...which one of the five returning scholarship backs would you choose?    I’ll make it easier for you...The offense is versatile… so go ahead and choose two, just in case you want put one back in motion.

USC hasn’t had this strong of a running back group since probably 2013, when Justin Davis, Silas Redd, Buck Allen, and Tre Madden were all members of the same backfield. 

With USC returning her whole compliment of backs, the answers are going to vary.    (RS)Senior, Vavae Malepeai, may have said it best in 2019 when talking about the Trojan backfield   "We got a dangerous backfield..."Everybody has different abilities, different styles of running.   Everyone has different strengths."

Hopefully in year two under Graham Harrell’s philosophy and coached up by Mike Jinks, each of those different styles will be utilized more this season than they were in 2019.    Let’s also hope the Trojans can improve on their 4-yards per carry as a team.

The hope is based on the Trojan backs staying healthy.  It never seemed at any point last season when Stephen Carr, Vavae Malepeai, Markese Stepp, and Kenan Christon were all healthy together.  At one point in the middle of the season, Quincy Jountti, was being relied upon the shoulder the load. 

With this strong of a group returning, keeping Amon-Ra St. Brown at wide receiver will save on the wear and tear also.

Let’s examine the strengths and weaknesses of the backs who will be the primary ball handlers in 2020 and some things to look for this spring when camp opens.

Vavae Malepeai:

I’m of the opinion, Malepeai, is the most complete running back on the roster with his quick decision-making, and one cut, plant the foot and go physical style.  Vavae’s style makes him the perfect compliment for the offense, and was Harrell’s choice to be considered a co-starter in 2019.   One of Vavae’s best qualities when running is he seems to always fall forward and rarely takes a loss.  Another strength, is his ability in pass protection and blocking downfield.  Vavae has shown he is more than capable of catcjhing the ball out of the backfield too.

The one are where I would like to see immprovement would be with ball security...he has a tendency to be loose at times when carrying the ball.    Malepeai brings a physical attitude to the running back position, and that style compliments the finesse passing game the Trojans employ.

Stephen Carr:

Carr averaged almost 6 yards everytime he caught the ball out of the backfield, and is considered the Trojans best receiver out of the backs.   When Carr arrived at USC he brought with him the big play ability, however, injuries seemed to have stunted his development and hasn’t been able to recapture his freshman form.   When healthy, Carr, is a weapon which forces the opposition to choose how to defend the field    As a defense, do you keep  extra guy(s) in the box accounting for Carr’s ability to break off a run, or do you play back, watching for the pass?     Stephen’s biggest weakness which he can control is ball protection.

The questions about Carr’s game are the following:

Can Carr regain his speed and is he 100% healthy again?  And Is he a willing blocker in pass protection?

Markese Stepp:

For whatever reason(s) it took a while for Harrell to trust Stepp and give him extended action in 2019.  Stepp’s playing time should not be an issue in 2020 after what he showed when given the opportunity.   Vavae, might be considered the most complete running back on the team, however, Stepp, is the most intimidating back on the team.  From a pure attitude and stylistic point of view, Stepp, is exactly what the Trojans need to balance the offensive scheme Harrell runs.  Stepp does not go down on first contact.  Sometimes he does not go down second...third....or fourth contact!   When Stepp lines up in the backfield, the defense’s choice is made and the advantage is tilted to USC.  

And although Stepp has improved since his arrival, there are still areas where Stepp will be asked to grow this spring.  1) Catching the ball out of the backfield...2) get better at pass protection.

Kenan Christon:

Kenan Christon is fast...Reggie Bush fast.  Christon needs more touches in 2020 than he received in 2019 as a true freshman.  

Christon got his first career start and was playing in only his fourth college game when USC traveled  to Arizona State, and the freshman wasted little time earning himself Pac-12 Freshman of the Week honors for Week 11.   Kenan put up 144 all-purpose yards, including 62 yards on 20 carries and 82 yards on four catches...including two touchdown catches of eight and 58 yards.    I want to emphasize, USC, has not had this dynamic of a playmnaker at running back since No.5.

I also want to emphasize in order for Christon to get more playing time, he will need to get physically stronger to absorb the hits.  He will need to be better with ball security, and pass protection too.  If these areas of growth improve, there will be no excuse to not play a healthy Kenan Christon more.

Things to look for this spring:

I want to see more two back sets this spring.   Use the weapons on the roster...all of them.    Has Carr regained his speed?   Are the running backs being thown to more?  Are more power concepts being employed?  Overall creativity.  Can Harrell and Jinks raise these guys to another level and do they trust each of them enough to use them all?


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