“Tailback U” label is a thing of the past

In USC’s most recent practice Tuesday, senior running back Curtis McNeal broke off a long run down the sidelines. He broke a couple of tackles along the way and sped down the field, giving the Trojans a reminder of how he ended last season. McNeal ran for more than 1,000 yards, and given the fact that he only started a handful of games, completed an impressive feat.

Changes · Senior runningback Curtis McNeal rushed for more than 1,000 yards in 2011. His yardage went largely unnoticed, however, on the national stage because of USC’s emphasis on the passing game. - Chris Pham | Daily Trojan

McNeal and the Trojans have long been known as “Tailback U” because of the legendary backs that have graced the campus: Mike Garrett, OJ Simpson, Charles White, Marcus Allen, Ricky Bell, Anthony Davis and Sam Cunningham. Each one of these players made his own impact on the USC record books. Three of them won the Heisman Trophy, and each went on to play in the NFL. Simpson and Allen are in the NFL Hall of Fame.

Yes, USC has had its share of great backs, but recently the “Tailback U” label has been largely irrelevant.

From 2006-2008, the Trojans did not have a single rusher gain 1,000 yards. Joe McKnight broke the streak in 2009, but in 2010 the Trojans again failed to have a 1,000-yard rusher.

Though the 2005 Trojans featured two 1,000-yard rushers in Reggie Bush and LenDale White, they might not have even been the focal point of the offense: Quarterback Matt Leinart was under center, running the offense with precision and throwing to receivers such as Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith.

When McKnight gained 1,000 yards, it was hardly an awe-inspiring 1,000 yards. Instead, all the attention was on the freshman quarterback out of Mater Dei High School named Matt Barkley. McKnight was not even named first or second team all conference for his efforts. His work went largely unnoticed.

The same can be said of McNeal last year. He had a lot of yards but was sort of lost in the mix behind Barkley’s 3,500 yards and 39 touchdown passes, in addition to his pair of 1,000-yard receivers, Robert Woods and Marqise Lee.

McNeal had some huge games, such as his monster efforts against Stanford and Washington. But those games are not remembered for the running efforts the Trojans put forth; they are remembered for the passes Barkley threw.

USC is as strong as ever right now, as they look to be a preseason top-five team come September. But “Tailback U” does not hold the same weight it used to, and it hasn’t for a few years now.

The passing game has taken over football, but some programs still emphasize the running game as their focal point. This year’s national champion, Alabama, featured Trent Richardson, who finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting. Oregon has been led by a fierce running game the past few seasons, headlined by LaMichael James, Kenjon Barner and De’Anthony Thomas. Wisconsin, which went to the Rose Bowl last season, had Russell Wilson at quarterback, but Montee Ball was the Heisman Trophy finalist. USC, however, no longer fits in with these programs, and certainly hasn’t for years.

Though they have a 1,000- yard rusher, the team is not built around the ground game. When McKnight ran for 1,000, he was not the focal point. Bush and White were a huge part of the 2005 offense, but they were not necessarily the most important parts of the offense.

There is no problem with USC not being a running-based offense like it used to be; the landscape of college football has changed significantly since Mike Garrett won his Heisman in the 1960s. USC is not really “Tailback U” anymore. It certainly was in its heyday, but “Tailback U” serves as a memory in this era of USC football. It is a remnant of the past, something for generations to cherish.

There have been 1,000-yard rushers recently. But it is the passers — Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart, John David Booty, Mark Sanchez and Barkley — that have ruled the field at the Coliseum over the past decade.

No, USC is not “Tailback U” anymore. Great tailbacks like McNeal are still here putting up numbers, but they are not the featured aspects the team.

And as long as USC keeps winning, there is nothing wrong with that.


“Goal Line Stand” runs Thursdays. If you would like to comment on this story, email Michael at katzml@usc.edu or comment below.

1 reply
  1. Xavier Guidry
    Xavier Guidry says:

    Hey another great paper, I love to keep up to date with your articles. I do however want to point out a serious mistake you have made. You did not place Reggie Bush in the array of amazing backs that represent Tailback U. Sure he lost the Heisman, but he still WON it and a National Championship!! He still destroyed teams by leaping and running like no one had since OJ Simpson. For you to downplay his achievements just because he is not allowed to be in Heritage Hall, it is truly upsetting. I really respect you as a writer, but you and I both know Leinart AND Bush were the dynamic duo who got amazing praise. Both played on the same field while having Heisman trophies under their belt, who else has done that? Sure McNeal and McNight do not have the awe factor because of Barkley’s throwing prowess, but Reggie Bush certainly hailed at USC, and in the NFL, becoming the first pick in that draft!

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