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Early impact

LOS ANGELES -- He might be only a few months removed from high school, but that hasn't stopped Justin Davis from making quite an impression at USC already.

One of seven early-entrant freshmen taking part in the first slate of spring practices this March and April, Davis has emerged as a budding star at tailback. With last year's leading rusher, Silas Redd, sidelined with a torn meniscus in his knee, and another veteran ball carrier, D.J. Morgan, currently out with a minor knee injury, Davis has taken advantage of the increased opportunity to grab everyone's attention -- most importantly Lane Kiffin's.

"I can't imagine a guy having more of an impact in just a month of practice," Kiffin said. "He's so natural. He sees things really well running in our offense. This spring has been great for him, and he would be, by far, one of the highlights."

Just how impressed is Kiffin by Davis so far? In the media scrum that followed yet another standout scrimmage performance by the former Stockton (Calif.) Lincoln standout on Saturday -- one in which he rushed 17 times for 116 yards and one touchdown -- the USC coach was asked if his young back could step into the role as the primary backup to Redd this fall, and Kiffin couldn't have given him a bigger vote of confidence.

"It's possible for him to be the No. 1 tailback," Kiffin emphatically stated. "We're going to play the best guy, regardless of whether he's been here, whether he's a senior or whether he's a freshman. And obviously a couple of guys are banged up, but he started today with the ones, so it's not like his yards were coming against the twos."

At a place that has produced big time tailbacks such as Heisman Trophy winners Mike Garrett, O.J. Simpson, Charles White and Marcus Allen, and where the starting job is as coveted as gold, that's high praise, to say the least.

But for Davis, finding success with the ball in his hands is hardly anything new. Having rushed for a staggering 2,613 yards and 39 touchdowns as a high school junior in 2011, and then 1,806 yards and 23 touchdowns as a senior, he came to USC as one of the nation's most highly acclaimed running back prospects in the Class of 2013.

Still, virtually everyone has been more than a little taken aback by just how quickly Davis has caught on at USC. But with the drive and work ethic of a player well beyond his years, it's safe to say he arrived on campus with his mindset clearly pointed in the right direction.

"I'm coming out here to compete every day," Davis said. "That's one of the reasons that I came here early, because I wanted to get in the mix and to contribute early."

Said USC running backs coach Tommie Robinson: "One thing about him, he's fearless. You're talking about a kid who hasn't even gone to the prom yet. He's fresh out of high school, and he's out here grinding and mixing it up with these guys -- some of them three, four or five years older than him -- and he's mixing it up."

A self-described "one-cut" tailback with a style that emphasizes moving forward at all times, it's the physical aspect of the game that Davis relishes most, a fact that was made clear last Saturday when he found himself meeting 235-pound linebacker Lamar Dawson head to head at the line of scrimmage on a run up the middle. Rather than backing down, Davis dished out a punishing blow.

"I definitely thrive on that a lot, because running backs, they have to be one of the most physical people on the field -- you get hit every play," said Davis, who currently stands 6-foot-1 and 205 pounds, with the hopes of eventually bulking up to 215. "I try to turn that around -- I want to hit people every play, not get hit. So, that's a big part of my game. I just want to stay physical, wear down the defense and run past them in the fourth quarter."

But Davis' transition to the college game hasn't come without its challenges, which have included getting acclimated to the grueling offseason workouts, as well as growing accustomed to a new position coach in Robinson, who was brought in when Kennedy Polamalu departed after signing day. But those obstacles were easily overcome and actually paled in comparison to what has been his biggest hurdle -- learning the vast array of his responsibilities as outlined in the USC playbook. With his mind focused on the task at hand, however, he has begun to master that phase of the game as well, something that he credits for his recent surge in production on the field.

"That's the main adjustment that I had to struggle with the most, the playbook," Davis said. "But I'm starting to pick it up. I'm just getting in it every day, and it's allowed me to play faster."

Another factor in Davis' speedy development has come with the rash of injuries that have hit the USC tailbacks. With Redd and Morgan out of action and Tre Madden still not cleared to participate in contact drills after suffering a torn ACL in his knee last spring, it has been up to Davis and Javorius "Buck" Allen to carry the load in all of the 11-on-11 and scrimmage situations over the last two weeks.

"I've really had to mature quickly out here," Davis said. "I never thought that I'd be getting this many reps this spring, and it's just made me adapt that much faster. The more I get the looks in full-speed situations, the faster I'm going to come along. It's helping me out a lot."

The maturation and development of Davis is sure to continue through the team's final three practices this spring and on into the beginning of fall camp, when another tailback will be thrown into the fray in Joliet (Ill.) Catholic Academy's Ty Isaac. And whether or not Davis does find himself in the midst of a serious battle for the starting tailback job come August remains to be seen, but if he continues to perform at a high level, there is no denying that he just might ultimately make a very special name for himself -- which is exactly why he came to USC in the first place.

"I definitely just want to add to the legacy of Running Back U," Davis said. "That's one of the main reasons that I came here -- a lot of prolific running backs have come through here. Hopefully, I can add to that list."