There were depth issues at a number of positions this spring, as the defensive backs were without three projected starters at times, and the defensive line would run through drills with several holes in the third unit. But running back was a position that saw its depth tested often, and it’s a position with top-tier talent but not many bodies.
Stephen Carr and Vavae Malepeai are the notable returners in 2019, as Malepeai has rushed for 762 yards and eight touchdowns in his career, while Carr has added 971 total yards of offense and five scores in two injury-shortened years.
The talent in that duo is undeniable, but this year will show whether they can handle the load for a full season. Offensive coordinator Graham Harrell raves about Malepeai’s ability and toughness, and head coach Clay Helton said he likes where Carr was at during spring, with his willingness to test his ankle, stick his foot in the ground and head north through the line. It’s as good of a one-two punch as any offense in the conference, and both should benefit in a big way from Harrell’s offense getting them in space out of the backfield to run after receptions.
It would be simple enough to get those two involved, but redshirt freshman Markese Stepp spent one week of spring ball as the lone scholarship running back while Malepeai and Carr missed time due to illness. In that time, and the subsequent weeks, Stepp proved that he is every big as deserving as being fed a full load this season. Stepp is a little bit behind the others when it comes to pass protection, but he is an absolute terror with the ball in his hands. He is all knees, pads, and elbows when he runs, which makes tackling him an unpleasant chore. We’ll see how he reacts during a full season, but the glimpse we got of him late last year and the show he put on during spring speak to big things ahead for Stepp.
Not to be forgotten is walk-on Quincy Jountti, who was a constant and consistent presence during the spring. It won’t be surprising to see him actually in the rotation a little bit this fall, rather than just serving in mop-up time. He runs hard and with full effort every play.
While the staff looked as though it wanted to bring in two running backs in the 2019 class, only one was signed, as speedster Kenan Christon will be added to the roster this fall. Christon is a true speed back and has lit up the track this spring, running 10.26 in the 100 and 20.55 in the 200 in mid-May. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Christon worked into the kick return game as he gradually finds a comfort level at running back.
While Harrell’s Air Raid asks the quarterback to be the star and the facilitator, Harrell isn’t shy about saying his offense is truly about getting the best players the ball in space, and that includes using the running game. The running backs will seldom be handed the ball against a loaded box, which means when they are given it on a handoff, they should be one cut or a missed assignment away from getting into the secondary. It remains to be seen if the Trojans can develop a true power run game when they need it, but all three returning backs showed this spring they aren’t afraid to lower their head and push for the first down mark or the goal line. It will also be interesting to see how the rotation plays out. The offense is designed to run plays so quickly that subbing running backs in and out is extremely counterproductive. That means we will likely see running backs allowed to stay in the game a bit, which hopefully allows them to get into a rhythm with the ball. As for rotating series keeping the hot hand until he can’t go anymore, we’ll have to wait to see.
What we know already is that there is talent, but not a lot of depth. Staying healthy will be key, because while the quarterback and wide receivers will get a lot of attention, the running backs have a real ability to make this offense go with how many touches they should get and how many key conversions they might be responsible for.
Looking forward, there are no running back commitments in the 2020 class, but in-state prospect Kendall Milton (Clovis, Calif./Buchanan) is a five-star talent and someone the Trojans will recruit until the end. Local back JoJuan Collins (Harbor City, Calif./Narbonne) is on the radar as well, as are a couple of do-it-all backs in Sam Adams (Sammamish, Wash./Eastside Catholic) and Daniyel Ngata (Folsom, Calif./Folsom), and a number of Texas prospects, including Seth McGowan (Mesquite, Texas/Poteet) and Ty Jordan (Mesquite, Texas/West Mesquite).