Three's hardly a crowd in backfield
Trojans will lean on McNeal, Morgan and consider other options through spring ball
LOS ANGELES -- In recent years the school known as "Tailback U" has been known more for a tailback-by-committee approach, which has seen as many as 10 tailbacks on the USC roster.
That will not be the case for the Trojans during the upcoming spring or the 2012 season. As the team prepares for the opening of spring practices in early March, there are only three tailbacks on the roster. Of course, one of those is a returning 1,000 yard-rusher in senior Curtis McNeal, so it's not like the Trojans will be lacking for talent at the position.
"We have a philosophy around here that we don't want to change things up," USC running backs coach Kennedy Polamalu said. "We want to keep the guy in there who can carry the ball, who can protect the quarterback, and who can run the routes. We've been trying to get that every-down back for a while now, and we think we've found it in Curtis. We're going to run him until he can't go anymore."
The emergence of McNeal in such a featured role has to be considered somewhat of a surprise because of how far things have turned around for him in the last six months. As the Trojans headed into fall camp last August it was unclear if McNeal was going to be academically eligible. When USC coach Lane Kiffin announced to the team several days into camp that McNeal would be eligible to play there was a huge reaction from the players for one of the most popular guys on the team.
Early in the season, however, there wasn't much opportunity for McNeal to get on the field. During the first four games his action was limited. He had a 43-yard run against Syracuse but had only 24 total carries through the first five games. His workload increased against California with 17 carries, and eventually he was named the primary starter for the second half of the season. Over the final six games he gained 716 yards and finished the season with 1,038 yards to mark the 27th time a USC runner has surpassed the 1,000-yard mark.
"I put in a lot of work, and it was good to see it pay off," McNeal said. "I had missed some time the previous season with academics, so I was just trying to make up for the time I missed. I didn't let myself get down. I just kept moving and kept playing football."
The expectations will certainly be different for McNeal this year, as he will not be sneaking up on anybody, and there will be a lot more weight placed on his shoulders with the responsibilities that come with being the tailback at USC.
"It's a different deal when you're 'the man' at USC," Polamalu said. "There have been so many greats before you, and you're the one carrying the torch now. Curtis is a perfect example of what we teach at USC. You aren't entitled to anything here, but the opportunity will be there if you work hard and do the right things. Curtis had some adversity, but he hung in there, got an honest opportunity and turned it into a 1,000-yard season.
"The thing about Curtis McNeal is that he's tough. He's a tough, tough son-of-a-gun. And he's got a real good football IQ. He knows how to set up the run. He's got tempo, vision. And he can make explosive plays."
That ability to make explosive plays is a key priority in the Lane Kiffin offense. Kiffin has consistently stressed that he is looking for explosive plays (defined as 12 yards or more) and the fact McNeal was able to provide those plays was a big part of the reason why his role increased throughout the year.
Another player with explosive ability is sophomore D.J. Morgan, who started the first two games of the 2011 season until some lost fumbles put him on the bench. His action was limited for the remainder of the season.
Morgan was the talk of spring ball and the beginning stages of fall camp last year as he came back from a knee injury suffered late in his senior year of high school. After sitting out the 2010 season while rehabbing the injury, Morgan electrified the practices on a regular basis with his ability to make the big play. His rare bursts of speed were a welcome sight on Brian Kennedy/Howard Jones Field, and Kiffin was clearly excited about adding that element to his offensive attack. Unfortunately, the fumbling issue rose up once the season started and allowed others to bypass him in the rotation.
"We threw D.J. out there early last year, and I'll take the blame on that," Polamalu said. "I wanted it more than he was ready to take it, and that's part of teaching.
"The great thing about D.J. is that he stayed mentally strong. He was just like Curtis in that way. He didn't stop when things got tough. He kept coming to practice every day looking for an opportunity."
Morgan enters spring as the No. 2 tailback, so it stands to reason that he will get plenty of carries to show that he is ready to be counted on again.
One key factor in Morgan's return will be the confidence that he has once again in his knee. He's another year removed from the surgery, and that helps with the mental side of running with the football and trusting in your body.
"The knee is as close to 100 percent as it's going to be," Morgan told the Orange County Register. "It's as strong as it's going to be."
Morgan is also one of several Trojans taking part in track this spring -- an activity that puts him in a familiar training pattern as a former world-class youth hurdler -- and that extra work should only help prepare him to be ready to go once spring ball begins.
The third tailback is about as unproven as they come, both to USC fans and the coaches themselves. Buck Allen was a late academic qualifier last fall and didn't arrive at USC until September, once classes and the season had begun. Allen was immediately sent to the service team and never got the opportunity to spend fall camp practice time with Polamalu to learn the basic fundamentals of playing running back for the Trojans. As a result, this spring will be the first full-time opportunity for Allen to work with his coach, and Polamalu is excited to get him up to speed.
"It hurt Buck and I last fall to not spend that time together, so it will be important this spring to help him see the game faster," Polamalu said. "I think he has the ability, but I can't tell you how he's going to react to being lined up in that backfield, to actually being behind that offensive line, until we get out there in spring.
"From what I saw of him on the service team he looked a little hesitant. He didn't trust it. When your eyes don't trust something, you don't make that commitment to go. I think that's the hesitation he has right now. All the measurables are there, the size, the hands and the coordination."
Allen (6-2, 215) is an impressive athlete who recently did a standing flip in front of his teammates. His primary path to early playing time, however, is likely to be as the "big back" option within the offense.
"I'm trying to work hard and stay in shape," Allen said. "I felt like I was behind the whole time in fall, and now it's time to go out there and fight for what's mine. I'm here to be a power runner, and that's what I'm planning to do."
"The fullback position with our offense requires a lot of motions and shifts," Polamalu said. "We move the fullback around to get certain information about the defense. That's a lot of information to process, and Soma had a difficult time with that transition. On top of that, he had never really been a lead blocker before. Running with the ball and catching the ball, those parts of the game are good for Soma, plus he's strong enough and tough enough to be a blocker. He just needed to learn the confidence of what he's doing to be a consistent blocker. He's going to be a load once we get him to that point, and it's my job to bring that out."
Even though his new role calls for him to primarily be a blocker and a secondary ball-carrier option, there will be times -- including this spring -- when Vainuku is called upon to carry the ball, either in a single-back set or from the lead spot in a two-back set. One of the goals of a spring practice is also to give the defense a chance to practice against various looks that they will see, and Vainuku offers a talented option to practice against in those situations. As Polamalu notes, recent USC fullbacks have been well versed in performing those multiple duties.
"This position has always been the unsung glue of the offense," Polamalu said. "Guys from Malaefou MacKenzie to David Kirtman, Lee Webb, Brandon Hancock, Stanley Havili and Rhett. All of them could move the chains when needed. The position requires that."
Polamalu speaks with a hint of bias in his words as a former USC fullback (1982-85) who never lost a yard while carrying the football for the Trojans. Polamalu gained 681 yards as a runner, caught 23 passes and also threw a 65-yard touchdown pass against Stanford in 1983.
That kind of experience in the role of playing fullback at USC can only be beneficial to Vainuku, who was also mentored last fall by Ellison, one of the hardest workers on the USC team.
"Coach Polamalu is on me 24/7, and he expects the best out of me," Vainuku said. "I'm focused right now on the playbook and learning each concept. Last year I was nowhere close to knowing what I know now. Rhett Ellison taught me that it's all about having a routine in how you prepare, consistency. I just want to work hard every day and provide for my team the best way I can."
Vainuku will share time in the spring at fullback with Simi Vehikite, a junior who has gone back and forth between fullback and linebacker throughout his USC career.
"Simi had a lot to learn as a football player when he first got here, and he's still going through that process," Polamalu said. "The one thing he doesn't have to learn is to love the collision. I just have to make sure he's going the right way with the collision."
Another option that will arrive in the fall is incoming freshman Jahleel Pinner from Mission Viejo (Calif.) High School. Pinner is another 230-pound back who can play tailback or fullback and that should fit right in with the backfield of the Trojans.
"Jahleel Pinner picks things up," Polamalu said. "He comes from a good system with Bob Johnson where he understands spacing and can be used in different ways. We think he can be a good player."
Garry Paskwietz is the publisher of WeAreSC.com and has covered the Trojans since 1997. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.