Strength in numbers in USC's backfield


By the end of the 2014 season, USC running backs Buck Allen and Justin Davis were ready for a break.

Between the two of them, they accounted for 86.4 percent of the Trojans’ non-quarterback rushing attempts and 92.8 percent of their rushing yards. Not a team in the Pac-12 relied more heavily on just two backs.

They were productive -- Allen ran for 1,489 yards and Davis 595 -- but it came with a cost.

“We kind of got banged up at the end of the season,” Davis said.

That wear-down effect is what led Davis, who is now as healthy as he's been in "a long, long time," to shake his head in relief and flash an ear-to-ear smile when asked what it’s like to be part of a five-back rotation that includes a trio of true freshmen.

“The main thing about it is that it’s going to keep us fresh for the whole season,” he said. “Everyone is really talented and brings something a little different, so it’s going to force defenses to stay on their toes.”

Davis, a junior, and senior Tre Madden, who returned after missing last season with a foot injury, figure to get the bulk of the carries as the season progresses, but between Ronald Jones II, ESPN.com’s No. 1-ranked running back in the Class of 2015, speedster Dominic Davis and bruiser Aca'Cedric Ware, there’s enough unique talent to let the platoon system play out. As a result, coach Steve Sarkisian’s six-year streak of coaching a 1,000-yard back could be in jeopardy.

And that’s something he’s fine with … for now.

“I like it. I think it keeps us fresh right now. I think there’s going to come games where we’re going to start to lean on a couple of them or one of them depending on how the game goes, but as of right now they’re all doing a great job,” Sarkisian said. “They’re all executing when they get their number called, so I have a hard time arguing with it.”

With a passing game as dynamic as USC's with quarterback Cody Kessler, the Trojans' team rushing totals might not necessarily rank favorably against other teams in the conference -- at 175 yards per game they are ranked eighth -- but through four games their 5.4 yards per carry average sits only behind Arizona and Oregon.

Jones, who described himself as “the reliever,” is the team’s leading rusher with 242 yards, but that’s a bit misleading considering 165 yards have come in the second halves of blowout wins against Arkansas State, Idaho and Arizona State. Madden leads the team in carries (37) and is second with 213 yards, but only three of those yards have come after halftime.

Jones is adamant the freshmen are content with biding their time and learning from the older guys.

“Tre and J.D. are the 1-2 punch, but me, [Ware] and Dom make sure that when we get in, the offense doesn’t miss a beat,” Jones said.

Because there isn’t a need for any of them to carry 15-plus times a game, offensive coordinator Clay Helton said they’ve been able to earmark what the freshmen do best and involve them in the packages they are most comfortable with. It also helps, he said, that the veterans have made a point to do what they can to help their younger teammates acclimate.

“[Madden] is one of the leaders. He’s a senior and he’s like the uncle of the group, so if I ever have a question, I go to him,” Jones said. “School or football related, he’s always there for me. I didn’t think it would be like that, but they’ve all been really cool. They’re like big brothers now so it’s great.”

Ware’s experience has been similar.

“My first day here, I met Tre during [player run practices] and ever since then he’s been like my big brother,” he said.

Coming off a sub-par statistical game against Arizona State -- constant blitzing from the Sun Devils resulted in just 76 yards rushing for USC and opened things up for Kessler to throw for 375 yards and five touchdowns -- the Trojans have an equally challenging test Thursday night against Washington. The Huskies rank fifth among Power 5 schools and first in the Pac-12 in yards per carry allowed (2.61).