USC’s group of offensive skill players this season boasts a mix of returning talent and exciting young recruits expected to light up the field in 2013. With several capable recruits joining a field of returning players, USC should be able to spread out the ball more this year. This surplus of talent will take some of the burden off whomever the Trojans end up settling with at quarterback.
The team’s biggest strength appears to be in its backfield. Leading the charge for the running game is senior tailback Silas Redd. The highly touted former Penn State tailback amassed 905 yards rushing and nine touchdowns in his first campaign with the Trojans, and is looking to improve upon his efforts from last year.
“I want to stay healthy for the whole season,” Redd said. “A thousand yards, no fumbles, no missed assignments. I’m never one to complain about carries, but I definitely want over a thousand yards.”
Redd battled numerous injuries last season and required knee surgery in the offseason, which limited him in the summer and will force him to miss the season opener against Hawai’i. He had three carries or fewer in three games last season, and with departed running back Curtis McNeal battling injuries as well, the Trojans were left with a shortage of healthy scholarship running backs.
That should not be the case in 2013. USC is fortunate to have a deep stable of backs that will allow Kiffin to disperse carries as he sees fit and provide security should any player be injured.
Though Redd expects to be the primary ball carrier again this season, he will almost certainly be sharing carries with freshman tailback Justin Davis, who has surprised teammates and coaches with his physicality, quickness and natural instincts as a runner.
Davis’ strength is surprising considering he’s a true freshman. His north-south running ability invites contact, and Davis will oftentimes match or surpass the brutal strength of his defenders en route to yards after contact.
The Trojans’ deep stable of tailbacks will be rounded out by freshman Ty Isaac and redshirt sophomores Javorius “Buck” Allen and Tre Madden.
Madden, who missed all of last season with a torn ACL, is a particularly noteworthy addition to the backfield. As a true freshman in 2011, he appeared in all 12 games as a linebacker and on special teams. He switched to tailback the following spring and drew rave reviews in his first few days at the position, but suffered a knee injury shortly thereafter. With his addition, USC should have one of the most talented backfields in the conference.
“Our depth is finally back,” Kiffin said. “We have to produce on the field, but when you look at that position, you think, ‘Wow, that looks like a USC running back group.’ Some are inexperienced, but it’ll be exciting to see that group develop because that has been a goal of ours, to get that group back. I feel like we’ve got it back now.”
Joining the bevy of tailbacks are redshirt sophomore fullback Soma Vainuku and sophomore fullback Jahleel Pinner, who both showed their inexperience at times last year.
“The play of the fullback had a lot to do with issues last year, as we go back and look at the tape,” Kiffin said. “That had a lot to do with some of the short-yardage issues, too.”
Vainuku started last year but has been limited during fall camp, giving Pinner a chance to shine.
Kiffin may be intrigued by Pinner’s ability to catch the ball out of the backfield — especially after Vainuku failed to reel in a crucial fourth-down pass on the goal line in the waning moments of last year’s loss against Notre Dame.
“[Pinner] has done great,” Kiffin said. “You go through growing pains when you play guys earlier than they normally would. We went through that last year with him, and now he’s really coming along and is much improved.”
Even with the departure of Robert Woods to the NFL, USC’s receiving corps looked to be one of the deepest in the nation coming into the spring — but injuries have taken their toll in the offseason and thinned the group out considerably.
Oft-injured junior George Farmer was lost for the season when he tore his ACL in the spring, and freshman Steven Mitchell, who was considered an early favorite to start at slot receiver, succumbed to the same devastating injury during a voluntary summer workout.
Of course, having a Heisman Trophy contender in junior Marqise Lee, last year’s Biletnikoff Award recipient, helps offset those losses.
“I’ve made this statement before; he’s gonna leave here as the best [receiver] to ever play here,” Kiffin said, echoing his declaration from last September. “You can see the talent and the drive that he has … As a coach, you see that and realize how unusual that is.”
Sophomore Nelson Agholor seems poised to have a breakout season in 2013 alongside Lee after shining in the offseason.
“I really believe Nelson could have done similar things to what Marqise did his freshman year and Robert did his freshman year,” Kiffin said. “If he had been our No. 2 receiver [last season], I think he would have had the same type of numbers.”
Upstart freshman Darreus Rogers has set himself apart from junior Victor Blackwell and redshirt senior De’Von Flournoy for the No. 3 receiver spot with his performance in fall camp.
“He’s kind of made a significant play every day in practice,” Kiffin said. “We’re really excited about how he looks out there.”
Blackwell will likely still see playing time as one of the team’s few healthy wideouts, while Flournoy’s status is more uncertain, as he’s been in and out of practice since the spring with various minor injuries.
Adding to the plethora of receiving targets is the Trojans’ talented group of tight ends. Though there are only three scholarship tight ends on the roster, each of them has the ability to be a major weapon.
The two front-line players are redshirt juniors Randall Telfer and Xavier Grimble. Listed as co-starters for the third consecutive year, each is a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses, listed as 6-foot-4 and 6-foot-5, respectively, and 250 lbs. each. The duo has combined for 18 touchdowns over the past two seasons, and figure to be an integral part of the team’s passing attack in 2013.
Joining Telfer and Grimble is sophomore Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick. Physically imposing at 6-foot-5 255 lbs., Cope-Fitzpatrick looks the part of a star tight end. Though he caught just two passes for 12 yards in 2012, and is playing behind two NFL prospects, he is expected to have an expanded role with few healthy scholarship receivers on hand.
“Those numbers are abnormally low, with five scholarship receivers and three scholarship tight ends,” Kiffin said. “We’re just going to have to do our best and make sure those guys can help us in different ways and in different roles.”
Follow Euno Lee on Twitter @eunowhat