LOS ANGELES -- D.J. Morgan took a handoff at Thursday's practice and ran through a hole on the left side of the line with little resistance. By the time he reached the secondary it was clear that nobody was going to touch him, and he was off to the races for a 65-yard touchdown run.
It was a welcome sight for Lane Kiffin and a USC program that can always use another game-breaking threat out of the backfield. It's not the first time Morgan has opened eyes on the USC practice field. He broke his share of big plays last spring and fall camp too, which earned him a starting spot for the first two games of the 2011 season.
It looked to be setting up for a triumphant return to action for Morgan after he sat out the 2010 season as a redshirt while recovering from knee surgery late in his senior year at Woodland Hills (Calif.) Taft HS.
Unfortunately, the dream scenario didn't immediately turn out as planned, as Morgan had some fumbling issues early in the season. Before he had a chance to redeem himself both Marc Tyler and Curtis McNeal had established themselves ahead of Morgan on the depth chart.
During offseason winter workouts, Morgan focused on getting stronger to help withstand the rigors of playing tailback at the college level and also returned to a familiar training ground by joining USC's track and field team.
Morgan was a former youth world champion in the hurdles and has been working as part of an all-football relay team for USC track this spring with teammates Marqise Lee, Tony Burnett and Nickell Robey.
"My body is used to going back and forth between track and football," Morgan said. "All my life I've been doing that up until the last two years, when I was just doing football. It was fun at the end of practice today when we were doing wind sprints. Marqise (Lee) and I were the two out in front, and both of us are track guys, so hopefully the track training is paying off.
"It also helps that I'm further along since my surgery, so I feel real good. I feel like it takes a year mentally to recover from the surgery, and I've learned that it also takes a year physically of playing before you are really back. First you have to get your mind right, and then you have to physically be able to plant and do all of that. So far it's been pretty good -- hopefully once we get pads on it will feel the same."
A healthy Morgan would be another weapon in the Trojans' arsenal, a player who is more than capable of providing the explosive plays that Lane Kiffin wants from his offense. Kiffin has noticed a difference in Morgan this spring and looks to see the solid performance continue.
"D.J. looks noticeably improved from last year," Kiffin said. "He seems to be much healthier now that he is two years removed from his injury. It would be good if he could keep it up throughout spring."
Morgan is adopting a "so far, so good" approach to the first two days of spring ball but knows the real test lies ahead when the pads come on and the knee gets tested under true football conditions.
"I tightened up at the end of that long run today because we've been getting a lot of work so far in spring, but that's OK. As running backs, we have a goal that we outwork everybody, so I'm just trying to finish stronger than everybody too."
There certainly will be plenty of opportunities for Morgan to outwork everybody this spring, as the tailback depth is, to say the least, shallow. McNeal and Morgan are the only two returning tailbacks with any experience, and redshirt freshman Buck Allen still is trying to find his way within the program.
That means work, work and more work for Morgan, and he is just fine with that.
"I couldn't ask for a better opportunity than what I have this spring," Morgan said. "I have a serious hunger to prove myself, and I'm out here working as hard as I can to improve on the mistakes I made last year."
Garry Paskwietz is the publisher of WeAreSC.com and has covered the Trojans since 1997. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.