NCF Nation: Joe McKnight

When a football coaching staff signs one of the top few recruits at any position, it's cause for celebration. Therefore, grabbing two of the top three prospects at that position might warrant an Animal House-style party.

Between 2006, when ESPN began assembling recruit rankings, and 2013, individual programs managed to sign at least two of the top three players at a position 16 times. In many cases, one -- and sometimes both -- of those players became instant stars as true freshmen. Think Taylor Mays and Joe McKnight at USC, De'Anthony Thomas at Oregon, Laremy Tunsil at Ole Miss and Sean Spence at Miami.

This was a relatively unique occurrence up until 2014, when it happened five times -- with four of the five instances occurring in the SEC: twice at Alabama, which signed the top two players at both center (No. 1 Josh Casher and No. 2 J.C. Hassenauer) and outside linebacker (No. 1 Christian Miller and No. 2 Rashaan Evans), plus at LSU (with No. 1 and 3 wide receivers Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn) and Florida (with No. 2 and 3 defensive tackles Gerald Willis and Thomas Holley).

Clemson was the other school to accomplish the feat in 2014, signing No. 2 and 3 receiving tight ends Milan Richard and Cannon Smith.

In some of these cases -- particularly at LSU, which lost the vast majority of its receiving production from 2013 -- expectations are high that the star signees can immediately become valuable contributors as true freshmen. The Tigers have multiple alternatives at receiver, including Travin Dural and John Diarse, but Dupre and Quinn might rank among the leading contenders for playing time.

Judging by the long list of Freshman All-America and freshman all-conference honors won by those who previously signed as part of such a dynamic duo, perhaps it's not such a long shot that at least one of the newcomers will make a similar instant impact.

2006

Safety | USC
No. 2 Taylor Mays, No. 3 Antwine Perez

Mays appeared in all 13 games -- starting the last 12 at free safety after Josh Pinkard suffered a season-ending injury in the opener -- in 2006 and led the Trojans with three interceptions. Mays was fifth on the team with 62 tackles and tied for second with six passes defended, ending the season as Pac-10 Co-Freshman of the Year and as a member of multiple Freshman All-America teams. Perez played in seven games and recorded three tackles.

2007

Center | Auburn
No. 1 Ryan Pugh, No. 3 Chaz Ramsey

Pugh started six of Auburn's final nine games at left tackle and appeared in eight games overall. He also backed up Jason Bosley at center and earned Coaches' All-SEC Freshman team honors after the season. Like Pugh, Ramsey appeared for the first time in Week 4 and went on to start nine of the Tigers' last 10 games at right guard. He also made the Coaches' All-SEC Freshman team.

Running back | USC
No. 1 Joe McKnight, No. 2 Marc Tyler

McKnight played in all 13 games in 2007, ranked third on the team with 540 rushing yards and scored three touchdowns. He also caught 23 passes for 203 yards and a touchdown and served as the Trojans' primary punt returner, with his 8.4 yards per return helping him earn a All-Pac-10 honorable mention nod. Tyler redshirted in 2007 while recuperating from a high school leg injury.

2008

Inside linebacker | Ohio State
No. 1 Etienne Sabino, No. 2 Andrew Sweat

Sabino played in all 13 games and notched six tackles. He notched the only touchdown in the Buckeyes' 16-3 win against Purdue by returning a blocked punt 20 yards for a score. Sweat appeared in the last nine games and recorded five tackles, also contributing mostly on special teams.

Outside linebacker | Miami
No. 1 Arthur Brown, No. 2 Sean Spence, No. 3 Ramon Buchanan

Not only did Miami sign ESPN's top three outside linebacker prospects in 2008, it also signed No. 5 Jordan Futch. That's an outstanding haul for one year. At any rate, Spence emerged as the key member of this group from the get-go, ranking third on the team with 65 tackles and leading the Hurricanes with 9.5 tackles for a loss in 2008. He was ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year and made multiple Freshman All-America teams. Brown (who later transferred to Kansas State) played in 11 games as a freshman, notching four tackles and shifting from outside to inside linebacker. Buchanan had six tackles in nine games, playing mostly on special teams and also contributing at safety and linebacker.

Offensive tackle | Ohio State
No. 2 Michael Brewster, No. 3 J.B. Shugarts

Brewster played in 12 of the Buckeyes' 13 games in 2008 and started the last 10 at center, earning Freshman All-America honors in the process. Shugarts appeared in seven games at offensive tackle and missed six other games with a shoulder surgery that required offseason surgery.

Safety | Florida
No. 1 Will Hill, No. 2 Dee Finley

Hill played in 13 games and ranked sixth on the team with 48 tackles. He also picked off two passes and notched 1.5 sacks. He made the SEC All-Freshman team and led the Gators with 22 tackles on special teams. Finley did not qualify academically and spent the 2008 season at Milford Academy prep school. He eventually enrolled at Florida and shifted from safety to linebacker, but transferred away from Gainesville in 2011.

2009

Safety | South Carolina
No. 2 Stephon Gilmore, No. 3 DeVonte Holloman

Early enrollee Gilmore started all 13 games at cornerback, ranking fifth on the team with 56 tackles. He tied for the team lead with nine passes defended and ranked second with eight pass breakups, adding six tackles for a loss, three sacks, two fumble recoveries, two forced fumbles and an interception. The Freshman All-SEC and Freshman All-America honoree also averaged 10.1 yards per return as a punt return man. Another early enrollee, Hollomon also played in every game, notching 30 tackles, an interception (which he returned 54 yards against rival Clemson) and a tackle for a loss.

2010

Athlete | Florida
No. 1 Ronald Powell, No. 2 Matt Elam

Powell played in 13 games at strongside linebacker and recorded 25 tackles, three tackles for a loss and a sack en route to winning Freshman All-SEC honors. Elam also played in all 13 games, mostly on special teams and at defensive back, and notched 22 tackles, two tackles for a loss and a sack.

Defensive tackle | Florida
No. 1 Dominique Easley, No. 3 Sharrif Floyd

Easley recorded four tackles in six games. Floyd played in all 13 games, earning Coaches' Freshman All-SEC honors by making 23 tackles and 6.5 tackles for a loss.

Wide receiver | Texas
No. 2 Mike Davis, No. 3 Darius White

Davis ranked second on the team with 478 receiving yards and 47 receptions (a record for a Texas freshman). He became one of only three receivers in Longhorns history to post multiple 100-yard games as a freshman. White appeared in 10 games in 2010, but caught just one pass for 5 yards and eventually transferred to Missouri after two seasons, citing a need for a fresh start.

2011

Athlete | Oregon
No. 1 De'Anthony Thomas, No. 2 Devon Blackmon

The speedy Thomas earned Pac-12 Co-Offensive Freshman of the Year honors and was named an All-Pac-12 kick returner and a Freshman All-American. He was the only player in the nation to post at least 400 yards rushing, receiving and kick returning in 2011, ranking as the Ducks' second-leading receiver (595 yards on 46 catches) and third-leading rusher (608 yards and seven touchdowns). His 983 kickoff return yards ranked second in school history. Blackmon redshirted in 2011 and appeared in two games in 2012 before announcing his plan to transfer. He played at Riverside City College before signing with BYU as a juco transfer in 2014.

2012

Defensive end | Florida State
No. 1 Mario Edwards, No. 3 Chris Casher

Edwards became the only freshman to start all season for a loaded FSU defense when he replaced the injured Tank Carradine in the ACC Championship Game. He also started in the Orange Bowl win over Northern Illinois. In all, Edwards finished the season with 17 tackles, 2.5 tackles for a loss and 1.5 sacks. Casher played in two early games before suffering a season-ending injury and taking a redshirt in 2012.

2013

Offensive guard | Michigan
No. 2 David Dawson, No. 3 Patrick Kugler

Dawson and Kugler both redshirted in 2013. Dawson practiced during the spring at left guard and left tackle, while Kugler is among the candidates to start at center this fall.

Offensive tackle | Ole Miss
No. 1 Laremy Tunsil, No. 3 Austin Golson

Tunsil immediately became one of the better offensive tackles in the SEC, earning second-team All-SEC and Freshman All-America honors in 2013. He played in 12 games and started nine at left tackle, making him one of only two true full-time freshman starters at the position in the FBS. Tunsil allowed just one sack all season. Golson played in 12 games, mostly at guard, before missing the Rebels' bowl game because of shoulder surgery. He transferred to Auburn this summer, citing a family illness as the reason he wanted to move closer to his Alabama home.

Safety | USC
No. 1 Su'a Cravens, No. 3 Leon McQuay III

A 2013 early enrollee, Cravens started 13 games at strong safety, ranked eighth on the team with 52 tackles and tied for second with four interceptions. He made multiple Freshman All-America teams and earned an All-Pac-12 honorable mention nod after the season. McQuay played in all 14 games, picked off one pass and recorded 19 tackles.
video
TUCSON, Ariz. -- We're going to be charitable. We will merely call Arizona's 2011 defense awful and opine that it offered little to no resistance to opposing offenses. We won't try to be colorful or mocking. We will only further note that it wouldn't be surprising if the collective secretly wanted to conduct postgame interviews in French.

It's not just the big picture -- 460.5 yards per game, worst in the Pac-12, and 35.4 points per game, 107th in the nation. It's the details, such as surrendering 6.6 yards per play. Only five teams in the nation were worse. Or permitting opposing passers to complete 66 percent of their throws, another worst in the conference. Or grabbing 16 turnovers, second fewest in the conference. Or recording 10 sacks the entire season, which ranked 116th in the nation and, apparently, was the worst sack total in team history.

In the spring of 2011, before this defensive ugliness occurred, former coach Mike Stoops told the Pac-12 blog that his two best defensive players were linebacker Jake Fischer -- "heart and soul of our defense," Stoops said -- and cornerback Jonathan McKnight -- "our best cover guy," Stoops said.

So, yes, when both blew out their knees in advance of the season, it was not unreasonable to see this coming, at least some of it.

It is easy to look at the Wildcats' defense heading into 2012 and see plenty of "Uh, oh." While seven starters are back, there are far more questions than answers, particularly with the front seven. Oh, and there's a new, 3-3-5 scheme to learn.

Expect some growing pains. New coach Rich Rodriguez certainly seems to.

"I wish I could be more definitive," Rodriguez said when asked about his depth chart up front Wednesday. "It's such a fluid situation. We have a lot of 'ors' and 'ifs' on the defensive line. We've got enough bodies, though."

But if you want to pitch this thing forward in a positive way, the story would go like this: 1. McKnight and Fisher are both back and ready to start against Toledo on Sept. 1; 2. A 3-3-5 scheme plays into the Wildcats' strength -- the secondary; 3. The move of 6-foot-3, 221-pound Marquis Flowers from safety to linebacker might end up proving to be inspired; 4. As might the dual role of 260-pound fullback Taimi Tutogi doubling as a pass-rush specialist.

While Rodriguez is from the Lou Holtz school of talking to the media -- pooh pooh your talent, be colorful, reveal almost nothing -- the Wildcats players believe the defense will surprise some folks. After a couple of scrimmages in which they were dominated by the offense, they say the defense has been stepping up.

"The chemistry is coming along well, everybody is coming together and trusting one another," McKnight said.

McKnight, the brother of former USC running back Joe McKnight, is a good place to start. If he stays healthy, he could become one of the conference's best cover men.

"Nobody is going to throw at him," center Kyle Quinn said. "He's a lockdown guy."

Quinn also said the new scheme is creative at creating pressure, and aggressive at creating turnovers.

"They can make plays," he said. "They are a big-play defense."

That might be where the Wildcats' defense grabs hold. It won't be able to dominate up front. But if the sack and turnover numbers go up, the unit might be able to provide at least reasonably solid support for what could be an explosive offense.

And going from awful to decent could get this team to a bowl game.

Starting CB goes down for Arizona

August, 26, 2011
8/26/11
11:55
AM ET
The desert hasn't been good to defensive backs of late.

Arizona lost starting cornerback Jonathan McKnight for the season after it was announced he tore his ACL during Wednesday's practice. The true sophomore, brother to former USC tailback Joe McKnight, has a redshirt year available.

That's not a total disaster because McKnight was one of three good cornerbacks, but his injury makes Shaquille Richardson and Trevin Wade the starters with little margin for error, and bumps true freshman Cortez Johnson up the depth chart. Redshirt freshman Jourdon Grandon becomes the nickelback.

McKnight is the third member of the Wildcats' defense to suffer a knee injury this offseason: Safety Adam Hall and linebacker Jake Fischer were hurt in the spring. Hall and Fischer could return to action in October.

Up I-10 in Tempe, Arizona State also has struggled with injuries, most notably cornerback Omar Bolden and linebacker Brandon Magee.

USC's Kiffin now measured by results

September, 2, 2010
9/02/10
12:13
PM ET
There have been two narrative threads for Lane Kiffin over the past year or so. The first includes indignant forehead slaps and raised voices. The second isn't exactly laudatory. It's just more measured.

[+] EnlargeLane Kiffin
Chris Williams/Icon SMIIt's been an interesting year for Trojans head coach Lane Kiffin.
The first amounts to this: He's a good-for-nothing, spoiled brat who's never done anything. He's a loudmouth who plays free-and-easy with the rules and bailed on his fans and players at Tennessee after just one year.

The second: Well, his early career certainly has been interesting. But let's wait and see if he can actually coach.

You've, of course, read this before. Many times.

One of these narrative threads, however, will gain substantive traction over the coming weeks -- starting tonight at Hawaii -- as Kiffin begins what by any standard will be a difficult coaching assignment: Leading USC through severe NCAA sanctions that include a two-year postseason ban and a reduction of 30 scholarships over three years.

Other than a taking a shot at UCLA on national signing day last February -- which came off as a clumsy case of sour grapes -- Kiffin has mostly been focused and businesslike. And honest. When reporters ask him questions, he seems to say exactly what he thinks.

For example: Coach, what's your team going to look like against Hawaii?

"There are a lot of questions in everyone's mind, including mine as a head coach," he said. "How good are we going to be? We haven't played together or coached together with this team. With the limited contact and practices, it will be interesting."

He's not been afraid to discipline players. He's been quick to stop lackadaisical practices and demand a better effort. There's a sense that the circus that was USC has left town with the departure of Pete Carroll.

But the biggest changes are on the depth chart. Middle linebacker Chris Galippo, a returning starter, was beaten out by Devon Kennard. Allen Bradford had a firm grip on the starting job at tailback until he didn't: Marc Tyler emerged from whatever-happened-to-him? status to earn the nod. A group of veterans are looking up at true freshman receiver Robert Woods on the depth chart. Same at one cornerback spot, where true freshman Nickell Robey separated himself from Torin Harris.

"I tell our players all the time: if they don't like where they are on the depth chart, play better," Kiffin said. "We're not going to be stubborn and try to prove ourselves right because we name the guy a starter. We're going to evaluate that every week."

Early in the Carroll Era, USC was celebrated for its culture of competition. Seniority didn't matter. If a true freshman was better, he was going to play. That seemed to fade late in the Carroll Era, the most obvious example being the seemingly privileged status given to running back Joe McKnight, who rarely looked like the Trojans' best running back in large part because he spent many practices chilling on a golf cart because of some minor injury.

But Kiffin's attitude about some of the depth-chart surprises is notable: He doesn't strike a self-serving, "There's a new sheriff in town" pose.

"It's not done on purpose," he said. "If the same guys who ended last year [as starters] were the best guys at this point, they would still be at the top. We have always said we're going to play the best players regardless of age, regardless of recruiting rankings, regardless of where they are from. What was done before we got here doesn't mean anything to us. We've judged our guys only from the first day we've gotten here."

Which is the right message. That used to be the "USC way" and it was a big reason hot shot recruits wanted to go to USC: The opportunity to play immediately if they were good enough.

Yet this is a transitional USC. The Trojans are going to trot out a starting 22 tonight that could play with just about anybody. But the depth isn't there, and scholarship sanctions are going to make depth a bigger issue over the next four or five seasons.

Kiffin's immediate challenge is keeping his team motivated. One approach is obvious: It's us against the world. Still, Kiffin said that won't be the central theme of his locker room speeches.

"I get the sense they have that on their own," he said. "I've not pushed that. They've been through a long off-season. As I said before, the wrong people are being penalized. These players weren't even here when all that [Reggie Bush] stuff happened. They can only worry about what they can control. And that's going out and playing the best that they can each and every week."

And at this jumping-off point, Kiffin's reputation can start to re-write itself in ink instead of pencil.

A good example of new wait-and-see approach? Kiffin only fielded a couple of questions on the Pac-10 coaches teleconference on Tuesday. Then crickets. A shocked moderator told him no one had anything else to ask of him.

Said Kiffin, "That's a first."

The looking back is done. The present is ready to be measured.
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.
The NFL draft teaches hard lessons. Two USC players are learning that now: Taylor Mays and Everson Griffen.

Mays would have been a first-round pick last year. I know folks believe his perceived weaknesses would have revealed themselves on film Insider then just as they did this season. But the 2008 USC pass defense was simply extraordinary in large part because of Mays playing an intimidating and impenetrable center field.

So Mays blew it by coming back for his senior season. And he now knows this.

As for you, San Francisco 49ers fans: Didn't you guys do fairly well a few years back with another hard-hitting former USC safety? I got a $5 bill right here that says Mays is going to become an outstanding NFL safety.

Griffen is another story: First-round talent with questions about his attitude and work ethic. (Keep this in mind about Mays: his work ethic couldn't be any better).

Who would have thought that Washington's Daniel Te'o-Nesheim would go before Griffen? Te'o-Nesheim is superior to Griffen in only one way but its a critical one: motor. Griffen's is questionable, Te'o-Nesheim's is not.

The lesson here is that being good isn't enough. The NFL cares about the entire package. And NFL teams don't want players who aren't self-starters, who don't motivate themselves.

Take note incoming five-star recruits.

Here are the Pac-10 picks to this point (11:15 a.m. ET ).

First round
DE Tyson Alualu, California, Jacksonville (10)
RB Jahvid Best, California, Detroit (30)

Second round
DT Brian Price, UCLA, Tampa (35)
S T.J. Ward, Oregon, Cleveland (38)
TE Rob Gronkowski, Arizona, New England (42)
S Taylor Mays, USC, San Francisco (49)
RB Toby Gerhart, Stanford, Minnesota (51)
OT Charles Brown, USC, New Orleans (64)

Third round
TE Ed Dickson, Oregon, Baltimore (70)
WR Damian Williams, USC, Tennessee (77)
LB Donald Butler, Washington, San Diego (79)
DT Earl Mitchell, Arizona, Houston (81)
DE Daniel Te'o-Nesheim, Washington, Philadelphia (86)
OG Shawn Lauvao, Arizona State, Cleveland (92)
CB Kevin Thomas, USC, Indianapolis (94)

Fourth round
DE Everson Griffin, USC, Minnesota (100)
CB Alterraun Verner, UCLA, Tennessee (104)
CB Walter Thurmond, Oregon, Seattle (111)
RB Joe McKnight, USC, New York Jets (112)

Pac-10 recruiting wrap: Arizona

February, 4, 2010
2/04/10
10:37
AM ET
Arizona needed help on defense, and Mike Stoops thinks his class of 23 addressed that need, with 12 signees listed as playing on that side of the ball.

Top prospects: Defensive tackle Kirifi Taula and safety Marquis Flowers are freshmen who could immediately play their way into the rotation. Junior college transfers Paul Vassallo, Willie Mobley and Derek Earls could play their way into starting jobs.

Under the radar: Stoops said he believes receiver Garic Wharton is the fastest incoming freshman in the nation. Cornerback Jonathan McKnight is USC running back Joe McKnight's little brother.

Issues? For those who care about recruiting rankings, this is not a highly rated class, though it's notable that two teams that finished tied for second in the Pac-10 -- the Wildcats and Oregon State -- finished toward the bottom of the rankings. While Stoops aggressively advocated for quarterback Cameron Allerheiligen, the late decommitment of Matt Brown, who signed with TCU when Arizona offensive coordinator Sonny Dykes left for Louisiana Tech, hurt the class.

Notes: The class includes players from nine different states ... Stoops said height was a new emphasis -- he wants a taller, longer team ... The class includes five linemen on both sides of the ball ... Stoops said when he was recruiting McKnight, he tried to call his older brother, Joe. But he had the wrong number -- he was calling Jonathan ... Receiver Dan Buckner, a transfer from Texas, must sit out in 2010.
Some good news for USC?

Trojans running back Joe McKnight will resume practicing with his teammates today in San Francisco as they prepare for the Emerald Bowl against Boston College on Saturday.

McKnight, who arrived in San Francisco late Wednesday night, has not been cleared to play, but coach Pete Carroll called his return "a most favorable sign."

"Joe did everything he needed to do compliance-wise in L.A., so it was the right thing to get him up here right away," Carroll said in a statement.

McKnight practiced with the Trojans on Monday but remained in Southern California through Wednesday to be available for the university's investigation concerning his use of a 2006 Land Rover that allegedly was provided to his girlfriend by a Santa Monica businessman, a potential violation of NCAA rules.

"We'll just play it out and see what happens from here," Carroll said. "In the meantime, it's great to have Joe back with us."

One would assume USC, which already is under investigation for cases involving former football player Reggie Bush and basketball player O.J. Mayo, would be cautious about reinstating McKnight. Unless, that is, the school is certain that the NCAA and the Pac-10 will find no wrong-doing.

It's always good for any team to get its starting running back back, particularly one with McKnight's game-breaking talent. But the junior's return also would figure to boost morale around a program that's taken more than a few shots of late.

Still, it remains to be seen if McKnight suits up Saturday evening. Again, one would think USC would take no chances because of other NCAA issues.

Emerald Bowl preview

December, 24, 2009
12/24/09
10:20
AM ET
Breaking down the Emerald Bowl between No. 24 USC (8-4) and Boston College (8-4).

WHO TO WATCH: USC quarterback Matt Barkley transformed from being the toast of college football after he led a game-winning drive in the waning moments at Ohio State on Sept. 12 to a guy who looked like an overmatched true freshman quarterback. The Trojans' offense sputtered down the stretch, and Barkley ended seventh in the Pac-10 in passing efficiency, with his 12 interceptions almost keeping pace with his 13 touchdowns. If Barkley reclaims his steady, heady self from the first half of the season, which means getting the ball into the hands of his playmakers and avoiding risky throws, the Trojans' offense should have no problem matching the smooth-running unit that scored 106 points against California, Notre Dame and Oregon State.

WHAT TO WATCH: USC in general. The conventional wisdom is the Trojans will come out flat and uninspired because: 1. the Emerald Bowl is beneath a team that's played in seven consecutive BCS bowls; 2. the program has been in the news a lot of late for all the wrong reasons, and that will dilute motivation. Perhaps. Or it might do the opposite. It might make them mad and focused -- us against the world! unite! -- and they might then play up to their capabilities. Or at least with some passion. Know that BC will show up hungry and unintimidated. Even without its A-game, which we haven't seen since the first three quarters of the win at Notre Dame, USC might prevail because it's got better players, but a lackluster effort could lead to another embarrassing defeat.

WHY TO WATCH: Because everyone is trying to figure out what's up with USC. If the Trojans roll and post an impressive win, it would suggest the program is righting itself and will be back in the Pac-10 and national mix next fall. If they look sloppy and uninspired, folks will start to wonder if the dynasty is truly dead. And keep in mind: While USC has lost four times in the Pac-10 this season, no team outside the conference has beaten USC since the 2005 national championship game.

PREDICTION: USC 30-17. The guess here is that USC has too much pride to play without fire. The absence of three starters and a reserve due to academics and NCAA issues will hurt, but that might be offset by a team that was beaten up getting three weeks to rest and heal, mentally as well as physically. BC will fight hard and keep things close early, but the Trojans' talent -- and motivation -- will eventually prevail.

Disappointment? Distractions? Declining performance? Controversy and allegations? Criticism and even ridicule?

All are words or phrases one could associate with USC's football program at present. Yet none seems to touch Matt Barkley.


Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesUSC quarterback Matt Barkley is focused on Saturday's Emerald Bowl against Boston College.
Perhaps one big reason that coach Pete Carroll is such a fan of his quarterback is that the true freshman's sunny disposition matches his own, even during dreary times.

And these are dreary times for the Trojans.

After seven consecutive Pac-10 championships and BCS bowl berths, they dropped four conference games, finished tied for fifth in the standings and will play unranked Boston College in the Emerald Bowl on Saturday.

And USC didn't just get beat this year. It got blown out by Oregon and Stanford and seemed indifferent during a loss to Arizona in the season-finale.

Oh, and there's this little matter involving running back Joe McKnight and the alleged use of a 2006 Land Rover owned by a Santa Monica businessman who employs his girlfriend that might raise an eyebrow from the NCAA. And then there's three players ruled academically ineligible this week, including starting tight end Anthony McCoy and offensive tackle Tyron Smith.

Yet all one gets from Barkley is gee-whiz enthusiasm. That's probably a good thing, by the way.

"We're excited -- we can't wait for this game," he said. "We've had a great last two weeks of practice preparing for the bowl game. We're really stoked to get one last game in and to be able to finish the season strong."

Barkley's season devolved individually like the Trojans has a whole. He threw nine of his 12 interception over his last six games. He finished ranked seventh in the conference in passing efficiency and was mostly eclipsed in the Pac-10 quarterback pecking order by several other young starters, such as Stanford's Andrew Luck and Arizona's Nick Foles.

As to what triggered his and his team's slide, Barkley isn't specific.

"A lot of factors contributed -- a lot of little things that we don't have time to get into," he said. "But overall execution is what it came down to. All those things piled up and we weren't playing Trojan football like we know it."

Barkley hardly deserves the predominant blame. Offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates struggled to find his rhythm in his first year replacing Washington coach Steve Sarkisian. Carroll also probably set the bar too high for Barkley by repeatedly calling him an "outlier" and casting him as a quarterbacking savant.

And, you know, the defense wasn't exactly the impenetrable wall that has been typical during Carroll's tenure.

Whatever the reasons -- and it's never just one thing, is it? -- USC's slide seemed to be greeted with glee across the college football landscape. It certainly inspired copious message board ripostes.

Barkley acknowledged that the Trojans are well-aware of the sniping of their critics.

So, is that motivation?

"Absolutely. Guys never like to hear how it's been a terrible season and how bad we've done," he said. "To be able to finish the season with a win will be huge. Not only to end this year but for next year's off-season and how we approach that. A win on Saturday will be huge to right those wrongs."

Barkley said sympathy -- not distraction -- was the reaction to recent off-field issues that will sideline two and probably three starters for Emerald Bowl.

"It's really terrible that they can't be with us," he said. "But we've been dealt a lot of adversity this year, so it's just another challenge for us in this last game. But it is really disappointing to know those guys can't play."

It seems many are expecting a flat and apathetic performance from the Trojans against Boston College. Barkley said that's not going to happen.

"We'll be up, definitely. We're so excited," he said. "We don't care if it's the Emerald Bowl. It's another game we get to play. And Boston College is a great team. They are going to put up a fight. We're not approaching this any differently than a Pac-10 championship game. We're excited to play one last time."

Businessman responds to McKnight story

December, 19, 2009
12/19/09
6:52
PM ET
The Santa Monica businessman who allegedly provided a 2006 Land Rover to USC running back Joe McKnight responded to the Los Angeles Times story this afternoon via e-mail.

Scott Schenter made a number of notable points:

1. He said he has no association with USC, noting that he is a Washington fan.

"I have never had USC season tickets or have never received tickets from any players or coaches from USC. I lost a bet from a girl from USC and have a "W" permanent tatto on my ankle because of it. "W" stands for Washington and the Washington Huskies are my passion."

2. He said he hasn't marketed or acted as an agent for athletes.

"These businesses are in the marketing business but I have nothing to do with agents, marketing players, or representing athletes. I have no experience in this business."

3. He said he's had a long-standing relationship with McKnight's girlfriend. Beltran and McKnight are the parents of a 10-month-old son.

"Johanna Michelle Beltran is a long time family friend and is an employee of Smart Bullets Inc. [one of his companies]"

4. He said the Land Rover in question belonged to Beltran even though it was in his name.

"I am the owner of the Land Rover because Michelle's parents couldn't qualify for the loan. It is her car. She makes the payments and she is responsible for insurance. The payments are a little over $500/month (not a big amount)."

5. As for his ownership of the Web site, www.4joemcknight.com, Schenter claims he's squatted on a number of similar Web site names.

"I also have uscmarketing.com, uclalove.com (where's the Kevin Love article), stanfordindians.com, 24kobe.com, airkobe.com, trumpcancer.com, shaqcancer.com, caltchbeavers.com, uscromeo.com, and for Scott Wolf, amandaflugrad.com."

So this is Chapter Two of this story.

The gist of Schenter's contentions is that if McKnight indeed was using this Land Rover -- McKnight denied driving the vehicle in the Times report -- he was merely borrowing his girlfriend's car. In other words, it didn't constitute an "extra benefit" provided by someone with professional interests in McKnight or someone representing or connected to USC.

Still, USC, the Pac-10 and NCAA will probably look into McKnight's relationships with Schenter. McKnight told the Times that he did not know him.

The first issue going forward will be whether McKnight will be allowed to play in the Emerald Bowl against Boston College on Dec. 26.

The second issue will be whether this will become more material for the Pac-10 and NCAA investigations into the USC football and basketball programs.

A bad season for USC may get worse

December, 19, 2009
12/19/09
10:32
AM ET
First USC loses its hold on the Pac-10 for the first time in eight years, then the Los Angeles Times reports on more potential NCAA violations.

[+] EnlargeJoe McKnight
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesJoe McKnight is a junior and could declare himself eligible for the 2010 NFL draft.
Things have been better for the Trojans.

The Times report concerns a 2006 Land Rover that running back Joe McKnight allegedly has been seen driving. It belongs to a Santa Monica, Calif., businessman, Scott Schenter, who reportedly employs McKnight's girlfriend and owns a company that registered a Web site called 4joemcknight.com, the Times reported.

McKnight told the Times he has only been a passenger in the Land Rover.

Coach Pete Carroll told the Times that USC is investigating the matter.

The problem for USC is these allegations are similar to the Reggie Bush case, the still unresolved matter that involved would-be sports agents providing cash and gifts to Bush and his family. It's a violation of NCAA rules for athletes to accept gifts, particularly from those who have a professional interest in the athlete. The USC basketball program also is under NCAA and Pac-10 investigation for alleged improper benefits provided to O.J. Mayo.

The NCAA could tie all of these allegations together, view them as a pattern of lax enforcement and rule that USC's athletic department lacks institutional control, which could mean major sanctions.

USC will play Boston College on Dec. 26 in the Emerald Bowl. It's unclear whether this investigation might prevent McKnight from playing.

McKnight is a junior and could declare himself eligible for the 2010 NFL draft this spring.
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.

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett


SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Quick review of the first half at Notre Dame Stadium, where USC leads the Fighting Irish 13-7.

Best call: Notre Dame's fake field goal in the first quarter. USC never saw Robby Parris hiding on the sideline, and holder Eric Maust passed to him for a 25-yard gain. The Irish scored their only touchdown on the next play.

Stat of the half: The Irish have just 121 total yards, including only 47 passing yards by Jimmy Clausen.

What Notre Dame needs to do: Give Clausen more time. The Notre Dame offensive line has had trouble slowing down four- and even three-man rushes from USC. Clausen has little opportunity and even fewer open targets.

What USC needs to do: Other than being more alert for fake field goals, USC needs to run the ball more effectively. The Trojans have broken off some big runs with Joe McKnight and Allen Bradford, but they've gotten stretched out when they near the red zone. They need to keep pounding Notre Dame in those situations to set up the play-action pass for Matt Barkley.
Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Greetings from Notre Dame Stadium, where we're just about an hour away from kickoff between the Fighting Irish and USC.

It's a pretty nice day here, with temperatures near 50 and sunny skies. Of course, the mercury will keep dropping throughout the day, and we'll see how the California boys deal with that.

The grass is not cut to U.S. Open rough specifications like it was in 2005. Looks like a normal playing surface, and the field appears to be in great shape after the bye week.

There was quite a buzz outside the stadium today, as the tailgating lots were jammed earlier than normal. I saw Irish and Trojans fans playfully yelling at each other at rest stops along the way here from Chicago. Notre Dame actually feels like it has something to talk about today.

Will the Irish be able to make this a game? The defense is going to have to rise up, and the team may need a score or at least some big plays out of special teams or a turnover at some point to have a chance. I look for Charlie Weis to make Matt Barkley beat him instead of the powerful USC running game. But Notre Dame may not be able to stop Joe McKnight and Allen Bradford even by loading the box.

The USC marching band got in here early and took up residence in the southeast corner. I don't think Golden Tate will mistake them for his own band today.

Much more to come throughout the day ...

SPONSORED HEADLINES