USC offensive coordinator Graham Harrell likes to say that the best version of his Air Raid offense is one with a strong running game.
USC has the ingredients to achieve that in 2020. Four returning running backs, each with varying skill sets that allow Harrell to toy around with options. An offensive line that returns three starters. And a pass game that will take pressure off the line of scrimmage and give the backs room to operate.
Here’s a breakdown of where USC stands at running back:
Key returnees: Stephen Carr (Sr.), Kenan Christon (So.), Quincy Jountti (Sr.), Vavae Malepeai (Sr.), Markese Stepp (So.)
Key losses: N/A
Biggest unanswered question: What exactly will the rotation look like? Last year, Malepeai entered the season as the starter, with Carr and Stepp serving as backups. Injuries to all three led to Christon being thrust into a prominent role and showcasing his game-changing speed.
This year seems different. Carr and Christon have had the healthiest camps, while Stepp and Malepeai have dealt with various injuries. But all four appear healthy approaching the opener against Arizona State, which begs the question: How will the quartet be deployed?
It’s conceivable you’ll see different starters and primary backs throughout the season based on matchups. And the ability to catch balls out of the backfield, as Christon and Carr have done this camp, will certainly help backs stay on the field.
Why 2020 production could be better: Injuries frequently felt like an insurmountable obstacle for USC’s tailbacks in 2019. If the Trojan running backs stay healthy, that alone would seem to foreshadow an improved ground game for USC.
And the word of mouth for USC’s running backs has been strong at camp. Carr is, according to head coach Clay Helton, having the best training camp of his college career. Stepp is growing in confidence and exciting his teammates with his play since returning from his lingering ankle injury. And Christon has added weight to his frame to improve his ability to break tackles and pass block in the backfield.
Why 2020 production could be worse: Injuries could rear their head again. Stepp has dealt with turf toe in the last week or so, while Malepeai has been slowed by a hamstring at times. That’s really the biggest reason for concern with this group given its experience and current levels of depth.