The running back situation
March, 8, 2012
By Pedro Moura | ESPNLosAngeles.com
What did Kennedy Polamalu, USC's second-year running backs coach, think about how his players performed Thursday, the second day of 2012 spring practice?
"Hey, we got through another practice," Polamalu said. "I'm happy about that. We got through another practice and we didn't have to throw anyone back there that didn't know what they were doing, so I'm happy."
It's not that Polamalu's expectations are lowered. He just has to be very, very careful about keeping his guys healthy. Polamalu has only three scholarship tailbacks with whom to work this spring and few reinforcements are coming in the fall.
It'll be Curtis McNeal, D.J. Morgan and Buck Allen carrying the ball for the Trojans. That's it. Soma Vainuku might get a few carries, but he's a fullback, not a tailback, and incoming recruit Jahleel Pinner's much of the same. Nelson Agholor might get some time there in the fall, but no one else is even a possibility.
"Yeah, that's very scary for us," Trojans coach Lane Kiffin said this week. "We have so little experience and numbers there in general and really nothing coming to help that very much."
The good thing: Talent isn't an issue. Morgan started USC's season opener last year over McNeal, Marc Tyler, Dillon Baxter and Amir Carlisle. McNeal himself ended up surpassing 1,000 yards on the season and has inherited the starting spot. Allen's an unknown but has shown serious potential.
"I believe we have the talent," Polamalu said.
The real key is McNeal, whom the coaches envision as a 20-carry-per-game back, especially since he has gained a dozen pounds and weighs 195 on his 5-foot-7 frame. And USC tried to avoid leaving him in the game during passing situations last year because he couldn't consistently catch out of the backfield.
He carried the ball 145 times in 2011 but had only three catches all season, compared to 18 for Tyler and Carlisle, who carried the ball a combined 141 times. USC's quarterbacks have been throwing to him quite a bit in the Trojans' two practices this spring.
"He's a lot more comfortable, and you can see it in the parts of the game that have been his weaknesses -- the catching the ball, the route-running," Kiffin said of McNeal on Thursday. "He's really getting better at being an all-around back."
Said Polamalu: "He's running with quickness, violence and padding now."
Morgan also is going to be needed as the change of pace from McNeal -- the speed contrast to the power back. Polamalu says Morgan finally looks fully recovered from the ACL tear he suffered his senior year of high school, and Morgan says he feels like it, although he stopped short he was truly "100 percent." Doing track & field this spring, he said, has aided his recovery process.
"I do feel a lot more confident," Morgan said Thursday. "For one, because I'm so many years off my surgery that I don't even have to think about it anymore. And I can react as fast as possible now.
"And having my feet under me from doing track has helped me as well."
Kiffin said Morgan's cuts are sharper this spring, showing that he's healthier as compared to the fall. Polamalu simply said "there's no hitch in his get-up anymore."
It needs to stay that way all 2012.