USC offseason storylines: Running backs

When Steve Sarkisian became USC’s new head coach, bringing with him his up-tempo offense, there were those among the Trojans faithful who wondered if his arrival marked the end of “Tailback U” as everyone knew it. But Sarkisian was quick to note that his USC offense would still possess a run-first philosophy -- just as his offense did at Washington, where the Huskies featured the nation’s No. 15 ground attack (239 yards per game) in 2013.

This spring, it was apparent that Sarkisian was true to his word, as the USC running backs certainly appeared to play just as integral a role in the offense as ever.

Workhorse or committee?

If you’re a USC tailback right now, you’ve got to be feeling pretty good. After all, it was under Sarkisian that Bishop Sankey blossomed into one of the nation’s premier rushers at Washington.

But will the new head coach go with one featured back, as he did with the Huskies, or will he instead go with a rotation of ball-carriers?

After seeing Javorius Allen and Tre Madden sharing the No. 1 spot atop the depth chart this spring, there’s reason to believe that Sarkisian might opt to go with a by-committee approach, particularly when promising sophomore Justin Davis is factored into the equation. The simple fact is USC has some real talent at the position -- so much so that it might be difficult to go with just one of them.

Allen is the hottest name after a breakout 2013 campaign in which he led the Trojans in rushing and garnered team MVP honors. Shifty, physical and an outstanding receiver, the fourth-year junior appears to be a perfect fit in the new scheme.

Madden, also a fourth-year junior, is more of a traditional power back who went over the century mark in four of USC’s first five games last year before he suffered a hamstring injury that restricted him throughout the later stages of the season. With Allen standing on the sideline for a portion of this past spring with an injury of his own, however, Madden came out and put together the best string of practices of any back.

And then there’s Davis. Possessing a nice blend of power, speed and vision, he was really starting to come on early in 2013 before going down with an ankle injury. Having missed the last seven games of last season as well as the entire spring, he has a lot of ground to make up, but if he’s able to return to form, watch out.

One thing is for certain: In Allen, Madden and Davis, Sarkisian and new running backs coach Johnny Nansen have three solid options who all bring something different to the table and it will be interesting to see what kind of rotation, or lack thereof, they opt to go with.

Depth issues at TB

While USC does have what looks to be three headliners at tailback, the group as a whole still isn’t particularly deep. That fact was made apparent this past spring when, at one point, the Trojans had just one healthy scholarship tailback available in Madden.

Matters were made worse recently when sophomore Ty Isaac transferred to Michigan.

With his departure, the Trojans have just one other scholarship tailback on the roster in fifth-year senior D.J. Morgan. Having provided glimpses of big-play ability in the past, he’s been hampered by knee injuries throughout his career. He sat out the 2013 season, as well as the spring, but has begun to take part in the team’s summer drills, so there’s certainly hope that perhaps he can make an impact in what will be his final season in a Trojans uniform.

The emergence of walk-on tailback James Toland IV was one of the surprises of the spring. Capitalizing on the increased opportunity that came with the mass of injuries, he showed that he just might be a capable option if need-be.

The Trojans also have the luxury of possessing two fullbacks who are versatile enough to contribute as featured backs. Soma Vainuku saw brief time at tailback in 2013 and was effective -- particularly against Colorado, when he ripped off a 52-yard touchdown run. Jahleel Pinner took reps at tailback this past spring and was impressive enough that Sarkisian said that he could envision using him at that spot in certain situations in the fall.

Of course, Sarkisian is undoubtedly hoping that the Trojans will not have to get that creative here, and the ability of Allen, Madden and Davis to stay healthy will obviously be a huge factor.

Fullback still part of the plan?

With the change to a fast-paced offense directed out of the shotgun, one of the great mysteries entering the spring was if there was a place for the fullback in the new system, particularly because the Trojans possess two good ones in Vainuku and Pinner.

And right from the get-go it became clear that the fullbacks were, in fact, being used -- just differently. Lining up all over the place throughout the offensive backfield, Sarkisian did a nice job of showcasing their abilities as blockers, ball carriers and receivers on a daily basis.

It was Pinner who had the most encouraging spring, while Vainuku missed the majority of the practices to injury. He has begun taking reps again this summer during the team’s volunteer workouts, however, and after finishing last season on a strong note, there’s every reason to believe he can thrive again.

In either case, judging by this past spring, it appears safe to say that the fullback position is still alive and well at USC, and that the Trojans have the potential to receive some solid production out of this spot in the fall.