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Tuesday, September 9, 2008
On a quest to find USC's best running back


Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

LOS ANGELES -- It's clear that Pete Carroll needs our help. The USC coach acts like he's content listing six tailbacks on his depth chart -- four loosely connected to the first team by an ambiguous "or" -- but that can't possibly be right.

Obviously, he's just going through a Hamlet phase -- he can't make a decision. That must be why he's running the quintessential backfield by committee.

"There's no committee," Carroll said. "We don't talk like that."

Then what should Joe McKnight, C.J. Gable, Stafon Johnson and Allen Bradford be called? A backfield by ensemble? Free-form jazz backfield? The Sybil Backfield?

Sure, the four combined for 202 yards in the 52-7 win at Virginia. Sure, Carroll's approach to coaching seems to work fairly well, with all those conference and national championships and whatever.

But there's a simple way to resolve this.

Talk to the Trojans defenders. They know who The Man really is.

They see these guys every day, and on competition Tuesdays, both sides go full-speed trying to make the other look bad.

So, Fili Moala, what do you think?

"Pick your poison," Moala said. "Do you want to get shook out of your jock strap or do you want to get run over?"

Recalling some jock strap issues during preseason camp, we're glad that Moala went with the latter.

The defensive tackle picked the 225-pound Bradford as the hardest to handle.

"He's very capable of running you clean over and just applying his will on you," Moala said. "You've got to hit Allen before he hits you."

Considering that Bradford has made up the most ground in the on-going competition, that sounds like a good pick.

Safety Kevin Ellison tips his cap to Bradford, too.

But then he goes with C.J. Gable, whose 73 yards on nine carries topped the Virginia stat sheet.

"All our backs got something different," Ellison said.

Fine. So, let's break the tie. Kyle Moore: Bradford or Gable?

"Joe [McKnight] gives me a little problem because he's so elusive," Moore said.

McKnight had 60 yards on six carries against Virginia, his 10 yards-per-tote average leading the Trojans, and he also caught four passes for 24 yards.

Hmm. These guys must have gotten together and talked in order to ruin this survey.

Perhaps Ohio State coach Jim Tressel can help. He first described the list of backs thusly: "On and on and on."

But then, probably just to spite our survey, he threw in the name of fullback Stanley Havili.

"What I love about them is you never hear of them complaining that they need the ball more," Tressel said.

Well, how could he hear that? He's Ohio State's coach. And he claims to never read the papers. Still, he's got a point. There have only been the merest whispers of complaint since these guys arrived over the past three seasons.

How can that be? These guys are competitive. They all were hyped high school recruits. How can they not complain, at least just a little behind the scenes? For example, how does it feel to be Allen Bradford, after an impressive spring and preseason, sitting on the sidelines watching McKnight or Gable or Johnson pilfering balls that he should be carrying? Surely that makes him want to lash out.

"I get real anxious," Bradford said. "I'll be on the sideline seeing Joe, Stafon and C.J. get carries and it just makes me want to go out there and work harder."

"Work harder"? That's not the colorful, controversial sort of comment we were looking for.

The Four Horsemen of the Apportion give each other plenty of grief, Bradford said, but they understand the system. Each has a package of plays that accentuates their strengths.

Yes, Bradford admitted, there are moments in running backs meetings when he wants to hoot down discussions of his backfield mates plays. But not during the serious business of a game.

"If it's your number, then we go," he said. "If not, then you've just got to wait until your number is called."

It appears, to be serious for a moment, that the buy-in for the approach operates well for a number of reasons. The players trust the system because they keep winning. They also feel like even without 20 touches a game, they will be able to showcase their skills enough to impress NFL scouts. And building an unselfish, team-first reputation probably won't hurt them at the next level, either.

Carroll seems to find it amusing that reporters are so obsessed with his backfield. He just doesn't see anything terribly complicated about it.

"We try to find niches for them within our scheme," he said. "It has nothing to do with anything else other than we're trying to win."