NCF Nation: C.J. Gable

Another year, another strong collection of running backs, even with the departures of Toby Gerhart and Jahvid Best.

While Pac-10 quarterbacks will grab most of the preseason headlines -- that's what happens when the two best NFL prospects at the position play in the same conference -- the class of running backs is nearly as strong.

Three 1,00o-yard rushers are back, and that doesn't include California's Shane Vereen, who piled up 952 yards as a backup, nor does it including Arizona's Nic Grigsby, who rushed for 1,153 yards in 2008. Six of the top-nine running backs will return this fall, and more than a few teams are decidedly deep at the position.

By the way, you might note there is more mention of incoming freshman at this position than others. Two reasons: 1. The Pac-1o had a strong haul of RBs in recruiting; and, 2. RB is often the easiest place for a young player to break into the lineup.

Great shape
  • Oregon: While the Pac-10 blog rates Oregon State's Jacquizz Rodgers ahead of LaMichael James as an individual player, the Ducks have a decided edge in depth, and not only because James' backup, Kenjon Barner, is one of the conference's most explosive players. The incoming recruiting class also features Lache Seastrunk and Dontae Williams, the No. 6 and No. 13 prep running backs in the nation in 2009.
  • [+] EnlargeJacquizz Rodgers
    Rick Scuteri/US PresswireJacquizz Rodgers may be the most talented individual running back in the Pac-10 this year, but Oregon has the best group.
  • Oregon State: Jacquizz Rodgers is a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate as the most complete back in the conference. Depth behind him is a little iffy, though Ryan McCants turned in some of his best work during spring practices.
  • Washington: Washington fans often note that Chris Polk gained most of his 1,113 yards last year after contact because he was running behind a young offensive line. That line, with four starters back, should be better in 2010. Good depth with Johri Fogerson and freshmen Deontae Cooper and Jesse Callier, who both participated in spring drills.
  • California: As noted above, Vereen put up impressive numbers as a backup and then starter over the final four games after Best got hurt. 12 TDs on 183 carries shows he has a nose for the endzone. Depth behind him is uncertain. Trajuan Briggs, Covaughn DeBoskie-Johnson, Isi Sofele and Dasarte Yarnway are competing for backup touches.
  • USC: Allen Bradford, a neglected talent under Pete Carroll, who was oddly in love with the mercurial Joe McKnight, could end up being a first-team All-Pac-10 back. C.J. Gable also will have a chance to emerge from Carroll's doghouse. True freshman Dillon Baxter was the star of spring practices, while Curtis McNeal and Marc Tyler are major talents who just need to stay healthy.
  • Arizona: The Wildcats welcome back their top three running backs: Grigsby, Keola Antolin and Greg Nwoko. But Grigsby, who averaged 7.2 yards per carry last year when he wasn't hurt, needs to find a way to stay healthy.
Good shape
We'll see
  • Stanford: The Cardinal doesn't have one guy who can replace Gerhart. But who does? The good news for a backfield-by-committee approach with Jeremy Stewart, Tyler Gaffney, Stepfan Taylor and freshman Usua Amanam in the mix is the offensive line in front of them should be outstanding.
  • Arizona State: The Sun Devils must replace leading rusher Dimitri Nance, who didn't exactly scare opposing defenses in 2009. Cameron Marshall is the leading returning rusher with 280 yards. James Morrison and Jamal Miles will provide depth, though an incoming freshman might get into the mix. As has been the case for a while with the Sun Devils, the first order is improving the offensive line.
  • Washington State: Leading 2009 rusher Dwight Tardy is gone. If James Montgomery is healthy -- and stays that way -- he gives the Cougars a quality runner. He was clearly the best guy last preseason before he got hurt. Logwone Mitz, Chantz Staden, Carl Winston and Marcus Richmond will compete for touches during fall camp. Whatever the pecking order, the offensive line is the biggest issue.
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

It surely passed through most USC observers minds while watching Allen Bradford (finally) have his breakout game against Oregon State last weekend. As Bradford and his 235 pounds ran over and around the Beavers defense for 147 yards on 15 carries, the potential metaphor and then comparison was obvious.

He's thunder to speedy Joe McKnight's lightning.

 
  Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
 USC running back Allen Bradford finally had a breakout game last Saturday against Oregon State.
He's LenDale White to McKnight's Reggie Bush.

Bradford, a redshirt junior, has waited a long time for that many touches in a game. And it's been a frustrating wait. So maybe it's understandable that he's not eager to embrace a metaphor or a comparison. He'd just -- please and thanks -- like to keep getting opportunities to do his thing.

"Me and Joe will never be Reggie and LenDale," Bradford said. "All we can be is Joe and Allen, so that's what we're going to be."

Oregon coach Chip Kelly is fairly impressed with Joe and Allen. His Ducks are playing well on defense, but the Trojans will bring a lot of weapons to their trick-or-treat road trip to Autzen Stadium on Saturday night (8 p.m. EST, ABC).

Thunder and lightning?

"With their stable of running backs, they've got thunder and lightning and hurricane, typhoon -- you name any storm, they've got it," Kelly said.

It's a good line -- Kelly has at least one of those a week -- but it's not completely true. At least not presently. After all the talk the previous few years about the Trojans embarrassment of riches at tailback, a recession has hit Heritage Hall.

Stafon Johnson suffered a season-ending throat injury in a weight room accident. Marc Tyler is out for the season with a toe injury. Curtis McNeal has been riddled with injuries. C.J. Gable, who started 11 games last year, has been nicked up and in the doghouse for unexplained reasons. Fullback Stanley Havili is questionable for Saturday with a shoulder injury.

McKnight always seems to be nursing some woe, too. He severely cut his hand against Oregon State.

Still, no matter why Bradford got his opportunity, he's glad he got it. And, yes, it was an inspired performance.

"(Receiver) Damian Williams just looked at me in my eyes (before the game) and said, 'Are you ready! Let's ball out!'" Bradford said, describing the pregame scene. "He saw the look on my face. He knew something was going to happen. Then we see Stafon -- we have this handshake we do before every game -- and it made me think about how blessed I am and how unfortunate it is for Stafon to go through that."

The 147 yards was a career-high for Bradford, as were the 15 carries, which are more carries than he's had during any of his previous two seasons. He appeared poised to make his mark in 2008, but a hip injury ended that possibility after two games and he took a redshirt year.

What Bradford has mostly done throughout his career is look impressive in his uniform -- he's built like a crate of bricks -- and impressive in practice. The reporters who regularly cover USC spend plenty of their downtime debating the relative merits of USC's running backs, and Bradford's remarkable runs during practices often earned him high marks.

But reporters don't make the depth chart.

"He's always had bright spots but he's really showed great consistency the last few weeks," coach Pete Carroll said.

Now that he's (finally) getting the ball, it might not be surprising that Bradford is disinclined to complain. He's not real clear on how often he asked the coaches why he wasn't getting playing time, though word is it happened on a regular basis. Early in his career, there was talk of him moving to fullback or even linebacker.

And, yes, Bradford, a Parade Magazine and USA Today first-team prep All-American in 2005, admits his eye did wander.

"Yeah, I thought about transferring plenty of times," he said.

But a number of current and former teammates, such as linebacker Thomas Williams and safety Kevin Ellison, talked him out of it.

And Bradford knew there were some areas where he fell short. Top of the list: blocking. A running back who can't stay in the game to block on a passing play is a liability -- it's a tell for an opposing defensive coordinator.

It might seem strange that a physically imposing player would struggle with blocking -- the 205-pound Gable, for example, is better at it than Bradford -- but it's actually not about muscle. Or even want-to. To make the right block, a running back has to be able to read the defense, sniff out a blitz and then used the proper technique to meet the on-coming charge.

"There's a lot of technical aspects to it," Carroll said. "It's not just being big and tough. It's much more than that."

Bradford's blocking is still a work in progress. But it's better.

He seems comfortable with the new attention. And carries. Another big performance inside raucous Autzen Stadium in a game that features Rose Bowl and potential national championship implications might become more than a breakout.

It could thunder an arrival.

Notre Dame-USC warmups

October, 17, 2009
10/17/09
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Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Well, the first bit of news from Notre Dame-USC warmups is that the teams didn't get into a brawl outside the tunnel like last year.

Other noteworthy items:

Michael Floyd is in full uniform for the Irish, but that's more to keep him mentally involved. He won't play unless Charlie Weis has been fooling us all.

Backup defensive end and sack specialist Nick Perry went through full warmups for USC and looks like he'll play. He had been questionable. Trojans kick returner and backup tailback C.J. Gable also warmed up with a knee brace on. He hurt his knee late in Thursday's practice.

The stands are nearly full 30 minutes before the game. Should be a great atmosphere at kickoff. The Notre Dame students are waving white towels, but I don't think that means they surrender.

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller


LOS ANGELES -- There's still an "OR" to the right of Joe McKnight's name on the USC depth chart, but it's mostly a wink at the Trojans' old way of doing things at running back.

McKnight is the Trojans' starting running back. His 14 carries against San Jose State were twice as many as any other Trojans running back, and it will be a surprise if he doesn't start at Ohio State on Saturday.
 
 Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
 Joe McKnight's workload against the Spartans indicates he's the Trojans' starting running back.
Allen Bradford might offer a power option off the bench. And Stafon Johnson might be the man near the goal line.

But McKnight is clearly 1A, whether coach Pete Carroll, who has long defended his backfield-by-committee approach, is explicit about it or not.

"We came out of camp with the thought that we wanted to really work Joe and see if we couldn't keep him in the game and get him more used to playing on a more regular basis and not spot play him so much and see if that wouldn't position him to make some more big plays," Carroll said after the Trojans 56-3 victory over the Spartans.

Carroll was even more vague during his Tuesday press conference when asked about the rotation.

"I don't know what that rotation was [against San Jose State] -- it was everybody played," Carroll said. "But we're going in with the same idea as we had last week. Joe, and you'll see a lot of guys play."

However the "rotation" is described, it worked against the Spartans. McKnight had 145 yards, including a 54-yard touchdown jaunt, and the Trojans finished with 354 yards rushing.

That long touchdown run was even punctuated by a flip into the endzone, which looked a lot like the guy McKnight grew up admiring: Reggie Bush.

McKnight told reporters he was really trippin' on that run.

When McKnight saw a terminally unhip media giving him knowing nods, he expanded.

"I was tripping ... I was falling," he clarified. "I didn't want to fall on the 1-yard line."

McKnight played the first two series before yielding to Bradford, but it's more likely McKnight went to the sidelines because he fumbled, an issue that has sprung up a few times during his career.

McKnight, however, returned for the next two possessions.

McKnight said knowing he'll get a handful of carries in sequence -- instead of a few touches here and there -- helps him fit into the flow of the game.

"It's always good to get into a rhythm in the game," he said. "You always want to get that home run hit, but you've got to be focused and get five yards here, five yards there. It will open up for you."

If there's a reason for the philosophy shift, which is subtle but clear, it's due to new playcaller Jeremy Bates, who intimated during the preseason that he wasn't a fan of not establishing a clear pecking order at the position.

Johnson finished with six rushes for 27 yards with two touchdowns. Bradford had four carries for 53 yards, most of which came on a 43-yard scoring run. Marc Tyler and C.J. Gable took over the position when the result was out of hand, combining for 109 yards on 12 carries.

Gable was the official starter in 12 games last year, so his status has slipped the most. Johnson led the Trojans with 138 carries for 728 yards in 2008.

Whoever runs the ball, he will benefit from an offensive line that doesn't miss many assignments and has a lot of experience with zone blocking. USC running backs were stopped for a loss only once -- Gable for minus-3 yards late in the game.

That said, the Ohio State defensive line is experienced and talented. It welcomes back seven of its top eight players from last season, and the unit has combined for 78 career starts.

McKnight will get first crack. But, if he's not effective, there still will be other appealing options.

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

It's not just the preview magazines that signal the approach of another glorious -- cue up Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus" -- college football season. It's also something dreadful.

It's another bushel of stories about USC's embarrassment of riches at tailback and the counterintuitive but entirely defensible idea that too much of a good thing might become a bad thing.

 
  AP Photo/Chris Carlson
  Once again, Pete Carroll's backfield is full of potential stars.

Or at least a less good thing than it could be if there were, say, merely three future NFL draft choices in the backfield instead of six.

Look. Here's one already! (A good one, in fact).

To let you in on a little secret: Sportswriters don't like doing the same story over and over again. And I've hit this one a few times over the years.

I've got a hunch, too, my boss is going to call me up at some point soon and say ... USC running backs ... think ... we ... need to... hit that one ... again.

And I'll waddle off like Igor and write another one.

So instead of: Joe McKnight, Stafon Johnson, C.J. Gable, Allen Bradford, Broderick Green and Marc Tyler from 2008, it's McKnight, Johnson, Gable, Bradford, Curtis McNeal and Tyler (Green transferred to Arkansas).

And when Pete Carroll rolls his eyes at me when I ask him again about it, he'll again say something like, "It's never been a problem for us. It's a problem for everyone else that they can't figure out why we do it that way."

But let me throw out one point that should matter most to the young men who opt to compete for carries at USC, though not as much to Trojan fans.

See, the redundant line of questioning here is: "Why join the crowd at USC when if you went to Another Team U then you'd be, 'The Man'?" (Reporters throw out terms like "The Man" to showcase their hipster roots, an effect that is often ruined by the cookie crumbs constellating the wrinkled golf shirt we got for free after covering some event).

Yet consider: Running backs have a very limited shelf life. They take a lot of hits. And each hit knocks a bit out of them. That's why so few do well in the NFL past 30.

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

What? No more Pac-10 games? Gahhh!

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

Ten things to consider, underline or anticipate heading into the weekend.

1. USC's backfield rotation is getting simpler: With Allen Bradford suffering a hip injury that has imperiled his season, and Joe McKnight battling a sore knee -- not to mention inconsistency -- the Trojans backfield rotation likely will feature Stafon Johnson and C.J. Gable as options Nos. 1 and 2, with McKnight used as a change of pace guy who doubles as a receiver.

2. Can a freshman tackle handle an All-Pac-10 defensive end?: If UCLA's offense is going to have any success at Oregon, it's going to have to account for end Nick Reed, who was first-team All-Pac-10 in 2007 and is presently leading the conference with six sacks. That falls to freshman tackle Jeff Baca, a former teammate of Reed's at Mission Viejo High School -- and by teammate we mean Baca used to admire Reed from afar. Baca figures to need some help (sliding protection or even a tight end with a max-protection scheme), but the less he needs the better for the Bruins.

3. Welcome to opportunity, Danny Sullivan: Folks didn't give Arizona State much chance at USC even with marquee quarterback Rudy Carpenter, so it is reasonable to assume that if Carpenter can't go the Sun Devils are pretty much doomed. Well, plenty of inexperienced or unknown athletes have stepped up and turned in clutch performances, so why not Danny Sullivan? Let's remember: Stanford, a 41-point underdog a year ago at USC, was led by Tavita Pritchard, an emergency, first-time starter because T.C. Ostrander had suffered a seizure the previous week. What happened in that game?

4. Will Justin Roper retake his spot as Oregon's starting quarterback?: The latest word is that Oregon coach Mike Bellotti and offensive coordinator Chip Kelly are still cogitating over who will start at quarterback for the Ducks against UCLA -- either Jeremiah Masoli, who has started the past three games, or former starter Justin Roper, who hurt his knee at Purdue on Sept. 13. Masoli has been solid in Roper's stead, and there's a possibility he holds onto the job, but Roper should have a lot more knowledge of the offense compared to the first-year juco transfer.

5. Arizona's defense needs to show it can stop a physical running back: It's been mostly roses and rainbows for Arizona during a 4-1 start, but the face plant at New Mexico is still why some doubt the Wildcats and attribute their early success to an easy schedule. For example, Arizona ranks No. 2 in the nation in total defense, but Lobos running back Rodney Ferguson, a 6-foot, 234-pound bowling ball, bullied the Wildcats for 158 yards and two touchdowns. So there is reason to be concerned about Stanford's power running game led by 230-pound Toby Gerhart and a physical offensive line.

6. Is a true freshman the best running back in the Pac-10?: It might be premature to hail Oregon State's Jacquizz Rodgers as such but he presently leads the Pac-10 with 110 yards rushing per game, which also ranks 14th in the nation. On Saturday, he faces a Washington State run defense that yields 241 yards rushing per game. If Rodgers hangs up huge numbers to pair with his red-letter performance against USC, he'll become a front-runner to earn First-Team All-Pac-10 honors.

7. USC quarterback Mark Sanchez will announce that he's joining the X-Men this weekend: Know how the X-Man Wolverine heals really quickly? Well, so does USC quarterback Mark Sanchez, who appears ready to add a bone bruise to the dislocated knee cap as injuries that failed to keep him from starting a game. Come to think of it, has anyone ever seen Sanchez and Wolverine in the same room? Hmm.

8. Gronkowski and Thomas should run wild against Stanford's secondary: Stanford ranks 112th in the nation in pass defense after giving up 347 yards and three touchdowns to Notre Dame and quarterback Jimmy Clausen. Arizona has a better offense and a lot more weapons than Notre Dame, namely receiver Mike Thomas and tight end Rob Gronkowski. Both of those guys should post huge numbers Saturday.

9. If it comes down to a kicker, Washington State wins: Washington State has notoriously struggled with special teams over the past few years, but kicker Nico Grasu is one of the few bright spots for the Cougars. Meanwhile, Oregon State, which featured former Groza Award winner Alexis Serna for four years, is now floundering with Justin Kahut. Grasu is 5-of-7 with a long field goal of 47 yards and is perfect on his PATs. Kahut is 3-of-7 with a long of 37 and missed a critical PAT at Utah last week.

10. Is there anything else to say about Rick Neuheisel's and Mike Bellotti's relationship?: The first stories of the week were about how Oregon fans and Mike Bellotti hate Rick Neuheisel. But then it turned out that Bellotti and Neuheisel get along well, even play golf together ("Drat!" said reporters). Oregon fans, of course, do dislike Neuheisel for what he did at Colorado and Washington -- you know, compile a 4-1 record against the Ducks. UCLA should be outmanned at Oregon, but don't be surprised if a few coaching tricks keep the Bruins close.

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

Ten things to consider, underline or anticipate heading into the weekend.

1. We should know fairly quickly if USC solved its run defense problems: What stood out more than anything in the Trojans loss to Oregon State was their poor run defense, with true freshman Jacquizz Rodgers rushing for 186 yards and USC's defensive linemen and linebackers struggling to get off blocks. Oregon is the nation's No. 4 rushing team and its passing game is still trying to find its rhythm with juco-transfer quarterback Jeremiah Masoli running the show. Ergo: The Ducks will immediately challenge the Trojans up front.

2. Who will start at quarterback for California and what will it mean?: Coming off a 42-7 victory in which your quarterback doesn't throw an interception is a curious time to renew a quarterback competition, but that's just what Bears coach Jeff Tedford did. And based on news reports this week, both sophomore starter Kevin Riley and senior challenger Nate Longshore -- who started 26 games before losing out to Riley -- practiced well, with neither surging ahead or falling behind. So Tedford said he'd wait until pregame warmups to announce who will start against Arizona State. How much of this is gamesmanship, and how much of an advantage does this garner Cal, if any? Here's a guess that the tag goes to the incumbent, and Riley remains the starter, with Longshore seeing spot action, which was the plan entering the season.

3. As usual, Rudy, not the run game, will be the key for Arizona State: Dennis Erickson said the Sun Devils need to run the ball more, period. The return of running back Keegan Herring from a nagging hamstring injury should help the Sun Devils sagging (110th in the nation) ground attack. But that won't change the basic fact that quarterback Rudy Carpenter is Arizona State's centerpiece, its singular star who will determine this team's fate almost every week. The speedy Herring might break a run or two for a big gain, but the Sun Devils will live or die by the pass in this game and the rest of the season.

4. Washington's new quarterback Ronnie Fouch won't wilt at Arizona: Don't be shocked if the Huskies offense puts up some points against the Wildcats with Fouch, a redshirt freshman, making his first start on the road after Jake Locker was lost to a broken thumb. Fouch has looked solid in limited action and seems confident in his abilities. More than a few folks have noted that he's already a more accurate passer than Locker. He might inject energy into a sagging team that may, in fact, be grateful to be away from its unhappy home fans.

5. Notre Dame will attack Stanford's secondary: Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen is rapidly improving and is developing timing with his young, talented receiving corps. Stanford's secondary is mediocre at best -- it allows opponents to complete 65 percent of their passes -- so the Cardinal will rely on pressure to keep Clausen in check. Stanford is second in the Pac-10 with three sacks a game, and the Fighting Irish offensive line is still figuring things out. But if Clausen gets time on his home field, he'll pick the Cardinal apart.

6. Rick Neuheisel's UCLA honeymoon will end if the Bruins lose: Neuheisel talked about noticeable improvement in the Bruins loss to Fresno State, but moral victories don't inspire a fanbase. And losing at home to the Cougars, a bad team even before it became a M.A.S.H unit, could cause some early grumbling in our win-now-or-else culture. UCLA should win going away. They should run right at the Cougars sagging defense and pressure redshirt freshman quarterback Marshall Lobbestael into making mistakes as he makes his first start on the road. Most of the schedule will be an uphill slog for the Bruins, so they shouldn't treat a rare weekend as a favorite as a time to relax.

7. Arizona should score 50: Arizona had a bye week to prepare for Jake Locker, and now they don't even have to deal with the annoyance of a running quarterback who can play keep-away from the Wildcats potent offense. And that offense will be rested and reloaded as it faces one of the nation's worst defenses. Tight end Rob Gronkowski figures to be completely back to form after missing the first three games with mono. Also, receiver Terrell Reese returns from a suspension, giving quarterback Willie Tuitama another option in the Wildcats potent spread attack.

8. Who will lead USC's tailback-by-committee this week?: Joe McKnight had emerged as first among equals in USC's crowded running back depth chart, but then he fumbled and was mostly ineffective in the loss to Oregon State. This past week, Allen Bradford, who had fallen off the radar, expressed frustration to coach Pete Carroll about his lack of carries. More than a few observers piped in that Stafon Johnson is being underused. And C.J. Gable remains the most complete back the Trojans have. The chatter won't matter if USC runs for 200-plus yards and rolls to victory -- success has always been Pete Carroll's justification for trying to distribute the ball among so many talented backs without establishing a consistent pecking order. But another meandering performance by the offense, particularly the rushing attack, might force a philosophy change.

9. Cal's offense won't be worse without Best: Well, of course, there will be some dropoff without the playmaking of speedy Jahvid Best, who's expected to return from a dislocated elbow on Oct. 18 at Arizona. But Shane Vereen is pretty fancy, too. Sure, Best has two 80-yard touchdown runs, but Vereen has an 81-yarder to his credit and he went 39 yards for another score for good measure. Vereen is averaging 69.8 yards rushing per game and a stout eight yards per carry. He also has 10 catches for 44 yards, so, like Best, he's also a good receiver. If Arizona State's defense exhales
because it doesn't see Best in the backfield, that could be a critical mistake.

10. This is Washington State's best chance for a Pac-10 win, at least until the Apple Cup: UCLA should beat the Cougars. The Bruins also should have beaten the Cougars last year, but Washington State won 27-7, a game that became a significant nail in then-Bruins coach Karl Dorrell's coffin. UCLA is prone to distraction. It may look at the schedule and yawn. Moreover, the Rose Bowl is hardly a hostile environment these days, so redshirt freshman quarterback Marshall Lobbestael might not be overwhelmed in his first road start. The Cougars may, in fact, benefit from being on the road, considering they lost by an average of 56 points in their first two conference home games. This might not qualify as an upset alert, but it won't be written very often this season that Washington State actually has a shot to win.

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

Getting deep into this week's games.

Oregon State's real test is Utah: The massive, shocking upset is a staple of college football and its frequency relative to other sports is one of the reasons we love the game so much. The issues for Oregon State is whether there's an encore for its win over top-ranked USC. Follow a victory over USC with a win at No. 15 Utah, and the Beavers figure to be the first two-loss team to enter the national polls. Or they can lose and retreat to the muddle of the middle-50 teams, their 15 minutes of 2008 fame over. The key for the Beavers will be the run game. Can Jacquizz Rodgers slash and dash against the Utes like he did against the Trojans? Most would say why not? But it's tougher going on the road, and Utah's run defense is stout. It ranks fifth in the nation and yields just 60 yards per game and 2.0 yards per rush. Oh, by the way, the Utes also have the best secondary in the Mountain West Conference, so passing won't be easy either against the nation's No. 5 overall defense (223.4 yards per game).

USC goes blue collar: The demotion of sophomore defensive end Everson Griffen and the likely decreased carries for sophomore tailback Joe McKnight may suggest that a true culture of competition is back at USC. Griffen and McKnight were both marquee recruits even among the Trojans superstar recruiting classes and both are exceptional physical talents. But the production -- and in Griffen's case, consistent effort -- hasn't been there. Griffen has just seven tackles and a sack thus far. His backup,Clay Matthews , a former walk-on, has 17 tackles, two sacks and two fumble recoveries. So who should start? As for McKnight, he's been spectacular at times and seemed to break through against Ohio State, but Stafon Johnson, C.J. Gable and Allen Bradford each are more complete players and are far more likely to run north-south and get tough yards. Oregon's defensive scheme is to gang up on the run and force teams to throw into its talented secondary. But it's possible the Trojans will want to play some smash-mouth at home and take out their anger, which might mean less McKnight.

Stanford needs ball control: The injury report tells you what you need to know about the Stanford offense: Running back Toby Gerhart (concussion) will play at Notre Dame but wide receiver Richard Sherman (knee) will not. With its most talented receiver again on the sidelines, the Cardinal will need to lean on its dramatically improved running game, with the capable Anthony Kimble spelling Gerhart at times. The Fighting Irish defense is mostly bend-but-don't break, surrendering yards (385 ypg) but not a whole lot of points (18.5 ppg), but it's hardly dominant against the run (134 ypg). While Stanford is grinding it out, it also is keeping the Irish offense and rapidly improving quarterback Jimmy Clausen -- 20-for-35, 275-yards, three touchdowns in a win over Purdue -- on the sidelines and away from the Cardinal's suspect secondary.

Is Arizona State really going to run? Sun Devils coach Dennis Erickson is a wily sort, and he's not above using the media for his purposes. This week he told reporters that his offense must run the football, period, and that if he had one regret he wished he'd run more against Georgia. For real? The Sun Devils ran 19 times and gained four yards against the Bulldogs, so Erickson is almost saying he'd rather bang his head against a wall 25 times rather than 19 times. And consider that, just three weeks ago before the Stanford game, Erickson told reporters that, "Right now, philosophically, we're going to come out flinging it." Then they came out and ran 36 times and passed 36 times. Sure, the return of speedy running back Keegan Herring will help the Sun Devils' anemic -- last in the Pac-10, 110th in the nation -- running attack, but this offense with Rudy Carpenter out front prefers to "fling" it. It is notable, however, that Cal is playing very good pass defense: It's ranked 11th in the nation in pass efficiency defense and leads the Pac-10 with eight INTs.

I have no feel for Cal's reopened QB competition, and maybe that's the point: How many teams opt for a high-profile QB controversy after a 42-7 victory with a critical game the next weekend? That's what Cal coach Jeff Tedford did by announcing that starter Kevin Riley, a sophomore, would need to fight off a challenge from senior Nate Longshore, who's started 26 career games, during practices this week. Tedford's official explanation is the offense has been starting slowly the past few games, and Riley has been inconsistent of late. He completed just 6 for 13 passes for 59 yards and a touchdown against Colorado State, one of two games this year when he's passed for less than 60 yards. In fact, Riley hasn't looked good since the season-opening win over Michigan State, when Longshore seemed to hammer the final nails into his QB coffin by tossing two interceptions, one of which was returned for a TD. Tedford said it looks like Riley is pressing, which was something Longshore often did as well. One possible explanation: Riley may need the competitive pressure in practice to thrive. Or maybe Longshore is legitimately winning back his coaches' favor. Guess we'll see on Saturday, eh?

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."

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

Ten big issues to consider as we enter the first weekend of action.

  1. Is USC QB Mark Sanchez's dislocated knee cap in the past or will it riddle him much of the season? Trojans coaches aren't shy about pointing out the vast distance between the way Sanchez is playing and the way the other QBs are. He's the guy. So, it's a blow if his knee doesn't hold up. He's an athletic guy who is unafraid to scramble, but he probably should play things fairly safe at Virginia.
  2. Oregon QB Justin Roper needs to take control in the huddle and show his teammates he's the man. By most accounts, one of Nate Costa's primary edges in the Ducks QB competition was leadership. Coaches always talk about taking charge in the huddle, and Costa did -- and Roper sometimes didn't. With Costa out for the season with a knee injury, Roper needs to grab his teammates by their figurative lapels and show them he's in charge. Otherwise, coaches might look to backup Jeremiah Masoli.
  3. We'll get a good measure of California's new 3-4 defense right out of the gate. Michigan State has a huge (average weight: 308) and experienced offensive line leading the charge for one of the most explosive running backs in the country in Javon Ringer. The Bears new linebacker-heavy defense needs to thwart the Spartans running game, or this one probably won't go well.
  4. Will UCLA QB Kevin Craft be able to manage the offense and avoid major mistakes? The Bruins won't win a track meet with Tennessee. The only way this one stays tight is if Craft and the offense play safe and smart and lean on their defense and special teams, which then need to do their part. If the Bruins consistently win the field position battle, the defense could force new Vols starting QB Jonathan Crompton to make his own gaffes, which could give Craft and company the short field they need.
  5. Will Washington State's new no-huddle offense be just the ticket for QB Gary Rogers? Rogers, a fifth-year senior, has waited a long time to take over the offense. New coach Paul Wulff's fast-paced, spread scheme doesn't seem like the ideal fit for the 6-foot-7 senior, but coaches surely mixed and matched parts to fit his skill set. Oklahoma State's defense isn't very good. The Cowboys figure to run all over the Cougars thin defense -- might the Cougars and Rogers return the favor?
  6. Arizona shouldn't just mail it in against overmatched Idaho; make a statement Wildcats! Arizona has the softest schedule in the conference, and these types of nonconference patsies are supposed to help a team build its confidence. But what if Arizona wins 27-24? That message is little more than a whimper. QB Willie Tuitama and his veteran offense should be satisfied with no less than 40 points, and the rebuilt defense should want to hold Idaho to no more than half of that.
  7. Arizona State's offensive line can start shutting up the so-called pundits by not allowing a sack against Northern Arizona: It's as easy as that. Last season's 55 sacks -- the oft-repeated stat of ignominy in Tempe -- will no longer be brought up as soon as the line shows QB protection problems are a thing of the past. The Lumberjacks aren't USC, but they certainly will come after QB Rudy Carpenter. If Carpenter's pants are free of grass stains after the final gun, mission accomplished.
  8. Give me the, er, darn ball! USC coach Pete Carroll has repeatedly -- endlessly -- insisted that he sees no problem in trying to give as many as four TBs carries in a game. That means Joe McKnight, Stafon Johnson, C.J. Gable and Allen Bradford will each get touches at Virginia. McKnight, due to his versatility, is a sure-thing. But how will the ball be distributed among the other three?
  9. All eyes are on QB Kevin Riley, but don't be surprised if TB Jahvid Best steals the show: Best is one of the nation's fastest football players. My guess is he's a step (or two) faster than Michigan State's Javon Ringer. So it's possible Spartans defenders will be shocked when the pursuit angles they've taken on Ringer leave them looking at Best's rear end.
  10. Washington's defense will be better, but by how much? The Huskies don't have amazing talent, but the biggest thing veteran NFL coach Ed Donatell can do to improve the defense is install a sound scheme the players understand. Last season, the Huskies often didn't know where to go and didn't understand why they were asked to do things. Without a sound plan, a team has no hope against Oregon's potent, elusive spread option.

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

The Pac-10 will stop being paranoid about East Coast bias as soon as it stops falling victim to it.

The Texas-based Doak Walker Award (Central Time Zone bias?) included just two Pac-10 running backs -- UCLA's Kahlil Bell and Arizona State's Keegan Herring -- on its 43-player watch list released Thursday.

Of course, the initial list didn't even include Bell. It featured Marc Dellins instead.

Dellins is UCLA's long-time sports information director.

Wonder how many of these guys would make the rotation at USC? Or Oregon or California for that matter.

In fairness, the watch list is based on nominations by sports information directors, but it's hard to believe some of the obvious Pac-10 omissions wouldn't register -- and be corrected -- by someone who knew a little bit about the conference.

You know: Like watched the Rose Bowl (Joe McKnight).

Here's a helping hand: McKnight, Stafon Johnson, C.J. Gable, all from USC; Jahvid Best, California; and Jeremiah Johnson, Oregon.

Semifinalists will be announced on Nov. 10, and the Doak Walker Award National Selection Committee will cast votes to determine the finalists, who will be announced on Nov. 24. The committee will cast a second vote beginning on Dec. 1 to determine the recipient.

Here are the other 41 players:

  1. Tarrion Adams (Sr.), Tulsa
  2. Reggie Arnold (Jr.), Arkansas State
  3. Andre Brown (Sr.), North Carolina State
  4. Donald Brown (Jr.), Connecticut
  5. Donald Buckram (So.), UTEP
  6. James Davis (Sr.), Clemson
  7. Mike Davis (Sr.), South Carolina
  8. Andre Dixon (Jr.), Connecticut
  9. Anthony Dixon (Jr.), Mississippi State
  10. Jonathan Dwyer (So.), Georgia Tech
  11. Jamelle Eugene (Jr.), North Carolina State
  12. Tyrell Fenroy (Sr.), Louisiana Lafayette
  13. Rodney Ferguson (Sr.), New Mexico
  14. Damion Fletcher (Jr.), Southern Mississippi
  15. Arian Foster (Sr.), Tennessee
  16. Mike Goodson (Jr.), Texas A&M
  17. P.J. Hill (Jr.), Wisconsin
  18. Deonte Jackson (So.), Idaho
  19. Terrell Jackson (Sr.), UTEP
  20. Eugene Jarvis (Jr.), Kent State
  21. Ian Johnson (Sr.), Boise State
  22. Eric Kettani (Sr.), Naval Academy
  23. Jorvorskie Lane (Sr.), Texas A&M
  24. Luke Lippincott (Sr.), Nevada
  25. Greg Little (So.), North Carolina
  26. Marlon Lucky (Sr.), Nebraska
  27. Darrell Mack (Sr.), Utah
  28. DeMyron Martin (Sr.), SMU
  29. LeSean McCoy (So.), Pittsburgh
  30. Knowshon Moreno (So.), Georgia
  31. DeMarco Murray (So.), Oklahoma
  32. Javon Ringer (Sr.), Michigan State
  33. Kory Sheets (Sr.), Purdue
  34. Michael Smith (Jr.), Arkansas
  35. C.J. Spiller (Jr.), Clemson
  36. James Starks (Jr.), Buffalo
  37. Frank Summers (Sr.), UNLV
  38. Tyrell Sutton (Sr.), Northwestern
  39. Joseph Turner (Jr.), TCU
  40. Harvey Unga (So.), BYU
  41. Chris Wells (Jr.), Ohio State
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

You're all starters to me.

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

It just wouldn't feel like a Wednesday without Pac-10 links.

  • The Arizona Daily Star chats with Arizona tailback Nic Grigsby. Marquis Hundley is a big-hitter in a small package. Coach Mike Stoops thanked athletic director Jim Livengood for his support and said the media doesn't understand how much the program has improved.
  • Jon Hargis will lead Arizona State's offensive line. He's improved quickly because he has to block DE Dexter Davis in practice; Davis is the key piece in the Sun Devils D-line. Both linked stories include injury reports, including a update on WR Chris McGaha, who's missed nine practices with a toe injury but is expected back next week.
  • California is "close" to making a call at QB between Nate Longshore and Kevin Riley after Tuesday's scrimmage. Riley appears to have made up ground of late. Cal also expects a lot from RB Jahvid Best -- the name Reggie Bush comes up. Here's some notes from Tuesday's closed scrimmage. More here.
  • Despite a sore shoulder, Oregon's freshman QB Chris Harper is still in the mix for playing time. An injury update -- Ducks are fairly healthy.
  • It's firming up that injured backup Oregon State QB Sean Canfield won't be the No. 2 guy at Stanford. The Beavers were expected to have a hot QB competition -- just like Cal -- but Canfield's shoulder is still bugging him. Building the Dam loves Bob DeCarolis, the OSU athletic director. We know this because they told us so.
  • It's not official, but all signs point to Tavita Pritchard starting at QB for Stanford against Oregon State next week.
  • UCLA can't afford injuries on its offensive line, but the bill collector isn't sympathetic. More on tackle Micah Kia's hand injury. And another shot for good measure. Checking in with Chris Forcier after he fell short in the QB competition against Kevin Craft.
  • USC injuries have received a lot of attention of late, but the latest to RB C.J. Gable appears to be more than hyperventilating. Gable, perhaps the Trojans best all-around RB when elements such as blocking are figured in, probably will miss the opener at Virginia.  It doesn't appear that will be the case with RB Joe McKnight, and the notorious introvert opens up to the Orange County Register's Michael Lev in this story. The latest on QB Mark Sanchez.
  • If you know Jake Locker, you knew the Washington QB wasn't going to let a hamstring injury keep him out of the season-opener at Oregon. Is there QB intrigue for both the Huskies and Ducks? The main issue with Locker will be whether missing 11 days and 12 practices will hurt his timing with an inexperienced crew of WRs. The Huskies already are eyeballing the Ducks. Bob Condotta stays up all night so you can read his notes. And so did Molly Yanity.
  • Former Washington State QB Mark Rypien tried to inspire the Cougars. DT Matt Eichelberger used to be viewed as a liability. He's slimmed down and is more confident, so that might not be the case this fall. Vince Grippi checks in with the secondary and gives you a practice report.
  • Finally, Jon Wilner updates his Pac-10 pecking order.

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

 
 Matt Brown/Icon SMI
 USC offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian would "love someday to be a head football coach."

USC offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian is a hot head-coaching prospect and runs a unit that -- if recruiting rankings are to be believed -- is almost as talented annually as any in the nation.

Of course, when an offense is perceived as owning elite talent, the margin for error is small and fans are quick to criticize when things aren't perfect. More than a few believe the Trojans 32.6 points and 434.9 yards per game in 2007 qualified as underachieving, regardless of the critical injuries at many key positions.

So with just four starters back on offense, what's in store in 2008? Is quarterback Mark Sanchez the man? What's up with the logjams at tailback and receiver? And is an offensive line with just one returning starter in trouble?

Sark stopped by for a chat.

What did Mark Sanchez do in the spring to jump ahead in the quarterback race?

Steve Sarkisian: The first thing that jumps out is he has a great comfort level with the offense. He does a nice job handling the offense as far as making the proper checks, the audibles, getting the ball into guys' hands quickly. But on top of that I think we felt and saw his energetic leadership. We saw a charismatic guy who loved to come out and work and practice every day and I think it was contagious for the entire football team. Those are some of the qualities you like to see in a leader, a guy who makes those around him better.

Is there a chance that someone else will start at quarterback in the opener at Virginia?

SS: Up until now [Sanchez] won the job. But we're going to give those other guys their opportunities in fall camp to go out and compete and prove they're worthy of playing time. But up until this point, Mark is the guy for us.

It seems like the competition remains wide-open at tailback, with a bunch of guys who could end up starting or at least get a lot of carries: How does the pecking order stack up there?

SS: If we were going to play today you'd see three guys: You'd see Joe McKnight. You'd see Stafon Johnson. You'd see C.J. Gable. For sure those three. But I think you're also going to get a little dose of Allen Bradford as well. Now that doesn't mean Allen Bradford couldn't be the lead dog by the end of camp. And that doesn't mean Marc Tyler or Broderick Green couldn't get in the mix. But coming out of spring football, those three guys really established themselves. And Allen Bradford made a lot of noise.

You guys have so many talented running backs, but has there been much discussion among the coaches about maybe picking one horse, one guy who gets 25 carries a game?

SS: Not really. We've always had -- go back to when it was Justin Fargas and Sultan McCullough -- we've always had sort of a two-horse-type backfield with a third guy who was kind of a variety-type guy who can do a lot of different things. So we've always been that way. Sure, preferably you'd like it to be two solid guys where you know what you're getting. But right now we're looking at three or four guys. But I think that kind of stuff kind of settles itself out. Injuries come into play and guys step up. But it's good to know we've got that luxury at that position because it is a tough position to sustain and stay healthy at. As you saw last year. The moment Stafon Johnson established himself as the back, he got hurt and then Chauncey Washington played and Joe McKnight stepped up when we lost C.J. Gable after the third game. So, obvious, it's a luxury to have three guys there -- or four or five.

Same thing at receiver: What's the pecking order there?

 
 AP Photo/John Froschauer
 Wide receiver Patrick Turner had 48 catches for 569 yards last year, including 3 scores.

SS: Coming out of spring football you really saw Vidal Hazelton really rise to the challenge. He was a [50]-catch guy as a sophomore and really was playing injured. He got healthy during spring football and looked fantastic. Patrick Turner, I think, is poised for a big-time senior season, and Damian Williams, a transfer from Arkansas, really impressed people. The two young guys, David Ausberry and Ronald Johnson, really stepped up in spring and got better. Then there are some dark horses in there: Travon Patterson, and a true freshman by the name of Brice Butler is coming into the mix. I think it is a really good position group for us because we've got a lot of depth there. But, again, we're looking for two or three guys to really step up and take over that spot and be the go-to guys for us.

The receivers as a group took some criticism last year. Was that fair? Were you disappointed in some of the production?

SS: Well, I think as a group offensively we were disappointed in ourselves as a whole. That position group was young and inexperienced and had some drops early in the season. And to compound that they were replacing maybe the greatest tandem of receivers in college football history in Steve Smith and Dwayne Jarrett. I think that made that discrepancy even bigger. There was a lot of pressure on them last year, but I really like how they ended the year. They grew up. I like the way Vidal ended the year. It was unfortunate that Patrick Turner couldn't pla
y in the bowl game. But he got better during the year. And I think David Ausberry got better and Ronald Johnson got better and it carried over to spring practice. They'll be ready for fall camp.

The offensive line needs four new starters. Is this a reload or rebuild?

SS: Last year we were hit with an injury bug up front all last year; it seemed like every week we had a different starting five. That forced a lot of our young kids to have to play last year, whether that was Charles Brown or Zach Heberer or Kristofer O'Dowd, the true freshman. So those guys got a lot more experience than I think people realize. It sounds like we're an inexperienced group because we're replacing four starters. But in reality these guys have played a lot of football and we're excited about them. This is an ornery group. They're competitive and athletic and tough and nasty. I think realistically we're a good eight deep with guys who can play. The challenge for us is to just get cohesive as we go through fall camp.

Of the guys we maybe haven't heard much about, who's going to break out this year?

SS: I don't know how to answer that. We've got a lot of kids who are very talented who have kind of just waited for their opportunity. The guy who jumps out at me is [tight end] Anthony McCoy, the guy who's played behind Fred Davis the last couple of years. I'm anxious to see [fullback] Stanley Havili as a sophomore. Damian Williams the transfer from Arkansas. And I'm anxious to see our quarterback play. I expect him to play really well and I think he expects to play really well. I wouldn't be surprised if he went out and had a great year.

Your name seems to come up a lot during coaching searches the past couple of years. What are your thoughts on your future as far as becoming a head coach? Do you have a timeline? Are you anxious about it?

SS: There's no question I'd love someday to be a head football coach. But I'm extremely fortunate. I am at a tremendous place at a tremendous time. Pete Carroll has been very good to me. We're winning. We've got great kids. We get to live in Los Angeles. I love it. I'm in no rush to get out of here. Every day is learning, watching how Pete handles our football team. I have fun going to work every day. So, yeah, I want to be a head football coach. But I'm not in any rush.

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