USC run game was beyond bad last season. In a year where head coach Clay Helton said he wanted the offense to rush for about 40 yards more per game than in 2019, the Trojans actually ran for about 30 yards fewer per game. There were very few times USC was able to control the game on the ground and it felt like with the exception of Vavae Malepeai for a stretch against UCLA, no Trojan running back was ever really able to get into a rhythm.
Early this spring, it seemed as though a page had been turned with regard to the USC running game. Returning veterans Vavae Malepeai and Stephen Carr were running hard and newcomers Keaontay Ingram and Brandon Campbell made their mark early and often. But while there were some tough carries and highlight runs, the consistency still wasn’t there. As spring ball has gone along, however, the running game is beginning to show up more and more. That has a lot to do with the effort from the backs, as well as the arrival of new offensive line coach Clay McGuire. It’ll be up to offensive coordinator Graham Harrell to set the tone for what the offense does, but McGuire’s addition has been a positive one for the backs and position coach Mike Jinks.
“I think it’s familiarity with the system as a whole and how the run and the pass marry up from a systemic standpoint,” Jinks said of what McGuire has brought to the offense with his understanding of Harrell’s version of the Air Raid. “Graham and Clay, there’s a lot of history there and I think they’re very comfortable in not only their conversations, but schematically and what they want to do and how they want to do it. And that’s ultimately important. It’s been fun to watch.”
None of the talk about an improved running game or coaches being on the same page or striving to hit that mark of 160 yards rushing per game will mean anything until USC takes the field and proves it this fall, but Jinks feels things are trending in the right direction.
“It’s a work in progress,” he said. “Bottom line is from top to bottom, there’s been a commitment to the run game and as a running back coach, that’s exciting to see.”
The relationship between the offensive line and running backs needs to be as tight as any between two positions, whether that’s between McGuire and running backs coach Mike Jinks, or the individual running backs and offensive linemen themselves.
Malepeai and Carr pointed to Justin Dedich and Courtland Ford, respectively, as offensive linemen who have stood out to them this spring. The reasoning for both came down to communication and having a better understanding of what’s happening on the field.
“He’s been doing a really good job of communicating with the backs on pass protection and where the runs are going,” Malepeai said of Dedich, who has been working at guard and center this spring. “His locker is close to mind, so he’s always asking me after practice, what did you see on this run? If I made a cutback, he asks what made you cut back? Did I do this? Did I not do that? It’s just a matter of communicating.”
Carr expressed similar thoughts about Ford, who has been mainly running as the first-team left tackle this spring.
“Now during spring ball he’ll come in the locker room and ask me questions about what happened on this run or what do you think I should do on this block,” Carr said. “Giving each other feedback, learning how to work with each other because that’s very important in the backfield — learning how your running back runs and learning how your offensive lineman blocks.”
Fans have been able to learn plenty about Carr and Malepeai during their time at USC, though Carr looks to be playing at a different level this spring. He credits his improved work ethic outside practice as well as completely grasping the mental side of what he’s being asked to do in the offense.
“I’m playing more comfortable,” Carr said. “I’m not thinking as much. I’m making full-speed decisions.”
The new faces are Ingram and Campbell. Ingram made an especially big impression early in the spring and Jinks said everything he’d heard about him prior to his arrival at USC from Texas has been true.
“I’ve got a lot of family in East Texas and had the opportunity to visit with them and a lot of them had the opportunity to see this kid play growing up, and not only did they speak on his ability, but his character,” Jinks said, adding that Todd Orlando and Craig Naivar deserve credit for establishing that relationship with Ingram and being able to bring him in. “He’s come in and he’s made them seem like a bunch of geniuses.”
But the plan this season is not for fans to get a full look at all six scholarship running backs, in Carr, Malepeai, Ingram, Campbell, Quincy Jountti and Kenan Christon. Jinks would like to have two backs that he considers 1a and 1b, but narrowing it down won’t be an easy decision.
“They made it extremely difficult and I’m happy for that,” Jinks said. “It’s very difficult to get three or four guys right in trying to split the carries there. It’s got to come down to two guys. We’re going to continue to compete. We’re going to continue to evaluate. We’re going to work out tails off in the summer…There is a commitment to do that because that’s the right thing for our football team and that’s the right thing to get our running game back where it needs to be.”
The addition of a couple new backs and a change in offensive line coaches aren’t the only things different about this season as far as the running game is concerned. USC wasn’t able to take part in spring ball last season and had a very disjointed summer and fall in preparing for the shortened 2020 season. Jinks said they looked back at the film from the first fall scrimmage and could hardly believe what they were watching.
“We were trying to figure out how the hell we got to a Pac-12 Championship Game,” Jinks said. “We came a long way throughout that season and it’s a testimony to these kids and their mindset. Having this spring and having the ability to get out and not just improve this spring, but from spring to summer and then have a fall camp, it’s going to be huge and I’m excited about it.”
Malepeai has seen the benefits of a full spring and new mindset already.
“It’s probably been the most physical spring that I’ve experienced since I’ve been here,” Malepeai said. “And me, I’ve been here for a long time. It’s great. I love the competition and I feel like practices like these just make the team come together, and that’s when you really have a family.”