Perhaps the greatest indication of junior tailback Silas Redd’s whirlwind last month came with the former Penn State star’s minor gaffe when asked about his thoughts entering a BCS title chase with USC. Redd responded that his focus was solely on the Sept. 1 opener against Ohio.
The Ohio University Bobcats, however, are Penn State’s — not USC’s — first opponent.
Redd quickly corrected himself later in his first post-practice interview donning a cardinal jersey, expressing his excitement for the Trojans’ first game against Hawai’i.
“My relationship with Penn State was a great experience, and they gave me some wonderful opportunities, but I’m opening a new chapter,” Redd said. “I’m a Trojan now. It was the bigger picture. I made a business decision. Academically, athletically, I felt like this was the best place to be.”
Though he earned 2009 U.S. Army All-American and Walter Camp Connecticut Player of the Year honors, Redd never received a scholarship offer from USC coming out of King Low Heywood Thomas School in Stamford, Conn. Once the NCAA levied its sanctions against Penn State on July 23, however, USC coach Lane Kiffin and his staff relentlessly pursued the 2011 All-Big-Ten second-team selection.
Returning just three scholarship running backs for 2012 in senior Curtis McNeal, redshirt sophomore D.J. Morgan and redshirt freshman Buck Allen, USC identified Redd as a player who could contribute immediately, without the usual adjustment process incoming freshmen must negotiate. But, before seeking to fill an obvious position of need — the three incumbent running backs have combined for a mere 193 carries in their USC careers — Kiffin first sought to determine if Redd’s personality and makeup would suit the tight-knit Trojan team.
“A big part was not just the player that you see on film, but it also had to fit right,” Kiffin said. “He’s a very competitive, great kid, and that’s the only way this was going to work. I believe that our core of great players [is] really good kids that love competition and love to work. If he was not like that, it would not have worked. These guys would not have accepted him.”
Redd, effectively a “free agent,” did not have to sit out a year after transferring to another Football Bowl Subdivision school because of Penn State’s sanctions. Once USC contacted Redd’s high school coach to gather information about the sophomore who ran for 1,241 yards in the rugged Big Ten, in his mind, the decision was simple: Stay at Penn State or head to USC.
“I wasn’t shopping around for other schools,” Redd said. “When they called my high school coach, I told him that [USC] is the only school that intrigues me, so I told him to call them back, and here we are.”
The impact of Redd’s transfer extends beyond his carries on the field; he will also pressure the returning USC running backs to improve their games. The atmosphere of competition Kiffin seeks to cultivate ensures that the players who emerge atop the depth charts are playing to their full potentials.
The primary beneficiary of this approach will likely be McNeal, USC’s returning leading rusher who averaged a robust 6.9 yards per carry but still needs to prove that he can withstand the physical pounding of increased carries.
“We would’ve seen an improved [McNeal] anyway, because [he] has really grown up in his approach to the game and his approach to life,” Kiffin said. “But this just pushes him a little further. We all need competition. And, adding that, I thought [McNeal] looked great [in his first practice].”
With only one year of eligibility remaining, McNeal’s primary focus is his own game.
“I just want to do better than I did last year,” McNeal said. “I want to go out with a bang.”
As for how the current runningback depth chart stacks up, Redd is glad that Kiffin has provided him an honest opportunity to unseat McNeal as the starting running back.
“[The other running backs] are competitors,” Redd said. “We’re coming out here and competing for that No. 1 spot, and I understand that there is no animosity or hard feelings … [Kiffin] told me I was going to get a fair shot, and he’s kept his word.”
Amid the competition, the running backs have also sought to teach and learn from each other.
“We’re just out here competing, making each other better, giving each other tips and just working as a group,” McNeal said.
Much like McNeal, Redd is working to round out his offensive skills and to become a more complete offensive weapon.
“I’m trying to be more versatile,” Redd said. “I came into college as a speedy back, and then last year I tried to take more of a pounding and become a power back. But now I’m trying to balance it, catch the ball out of the backfield and work on my blocking.”
Learning USC’s playbook and jargon will also take some time, but Redd has already received a pro-style offense primer during spring football from new Penn State coach Bill O’Brien, the New England Patriots’ former offensive coordinator who oversaw some of the NFL’s most productive offenses.
“It’s only day one [of fall camp],” Redd said. “I ran the wrong way a couple of times, but I ran the pro-style at Penn State during spring ball, and getting used to the lingo is the hardest thing right now.”
With the media circus yielding and the Penn State disappointment left behind, Redd is now able to prepare for his USC debut and season opener.
“[The most difficult part] was making the decision, figuring out what was best for me, and that decision led me here,” Redd said. “I can honestly say I’m really happy about it. If I had any mixed feelings, then I probably made the wrong decision. I have no regrets.”