LOS ANGELES – The first thought when seeing No. 29 enter Goux Gate and sprint onto USC's practice field is that he must be either a tight end or an H-back.
On the contrary, sophomore Ty Isaac is an extremely gifted running back, whose potential is nearly as big as his size, which is easy to pick out in the Trojans' new shotgun formation.
A chiseled, 240-pound player at 6-foot-2˝, Isaac’s physical appearance easily sticks out from other active spring running back teammates Javorius “Buck” Allen (6-1, 215) -- the Trojans' 2013 team MVP -- and Tre Madden (6-1, 220), the grandson of former Los Angeles Rams running back great Lawrence McCutcheon.
Compared to the competition, Isaac is also a completely different type of ball carrier and provides head coach Steve Sarkisian with unique options. There’s no question that once Isaac gets the ball in his hands, squares his pads and generates a head of steam, he’s one very difficult strider to bring down. You could say that his potential is as big as his two calves, which are like miniature tree trunks.
Isaac doesn’t just run, he rumbles. And don’t be deceived: He has the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield and go the distance.
A glimpse into Isaac’s promise was illustrated in last season’s Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl, when he ran for 44 yards in eight carries, including a dazzling 17-yard burst of power and speed. Eyebrows were raised even higher with a 35-yard pass reception, as the Trojans went on to a 45-20 rout of Fresno State.
Heading into spring ball with a new head coach, new running backs coach and a new offensive system, it figured that Isaac would use the first week of spring ball to quickly make a statement.
However, Sarkisian said a slight back issue slowed Isaac during that first week of spring practice and put him slightly behind both Allen and Madden.
After a week off to get well, thanks to spring break, Isaac, the former prep All-American out of Shorewood, Ill., and Joliet Catholic Academy, showed no outward signs of the back issue during Tuesday’s practice, which allowed him to move at the speed Sarkisian desires.
“It’s really fast,” said Isaac of the nonstop practice tempo. “For the most part, a lot of this stuff carried over from things we did last year. We’re obviously running it at a lot faster pace. Obviously it’s different terminology, but all the same plays.”
It’s this connection of the past and present offensive system that has helped players such as Isaac adjust to the offensive schemes of Sarkisian, but there are some adjustments.
“There’s a little bit of similarities from the past,” Isaac said. “It’s different coming across the quarterback. We didn’t do a lot of it last year, so it’s a little bit of an adjustment, but it’s not a big deal.”
Isaac saw considerable action last season as both a backup tailback and a member of the special teams. He appeared in all 14 games, running for 236 yards and averaging 5.9 yards per carry. If there was a highlight to his freshman season, it was at California, when he slashed and gashed the Golden Bears defense for 87 yards on 11 carries, which included two rushing touchdowns (4 and 37 yards).
Isaac's goal is to become a part of the running back rotation for 2014.
“I just feel I can improve overall and can get better,” Isaac said. “I feel like I could get better at pass-pro and seeing the field. Obviously being in the shotgun a lot this year gives a different view for a running back.”
One of the great fears of Trojans fans was whether this new offense would take away from the historically physical dominance of the Trojans' running game.
Isaac said followers of the Cardinal and Gold can put those fears to rest.
“We’re still going to pound teams, run the ball and pass when we have to, but it’s all at a way faster pace,” Isaac said. “We’ll constantly be attacking teams.”
There is fresh leadership in first-year running backs coach Johnny Nansen, who came south with Sarkisian from Washington.
“Man, he’s a good dude,” Isaac said of Nansen. “He’s getting us right and I like him a lot. He’s just getting us better as a group, teaching us this new playbook, and given us insights.”
And if Isaac has anything to do with it, he’ll give the Trojans backfield insight into becoming bigger and better, literally and figuratively.