As USC football’s first game rapidly approaches, the running back corps will be one to watch during the season.
Running backs coach Mike Jinks spoke to the media Tuesday morning and emphasized this year’s group of backs is mentally and physically prepared for the expedited season.
The Trojans rely on a powerful foursome of running backs, with seniors Stephen Carr and Vavae Malepaei along with sophomores Kenan Christon and Markese Stepp. According to Jinks, they all came into training camp in fantastic shape, calling them an “unbelievable group” with each earning reps for themselves. Jinks and head coach Clay Helton will look to get all of them involved.
“We’ve looked at some multiple-back sets, and now we’re going to get our best players on the football field,” Jinks said. “[We have an] extremely talented running back room. We’re gonna find ways to get all those guys on the field.”
Carr, who also spoke to the media Tuesday, will be an important asset to the Trojans’ potentially explosive Air Raid offense this year. Jinks had high praise for the senior running back.
“Stephen Carr looks great. He looks as good as he’s ever been since I’ve been here. He’s really just giving an example,” Jinks said. “And just from a mental standpoint, I think he’s focused and ready to take his game to another level, even beyond where it was when he got here as a highly touted freshman.”
As he begins his final year with the Trojans, Carr hopes to display his improvement at pass blocking and is ready to get the season going.
“I just want to be more physical this year. That’s really the only thing on my mind,” Carr said. “I feel like the college world has seen a lot of what I could do when it comes to catching the ball out of the backfield [and] making people miss. I’m trying to show up a little more.”
Head coach Clay Helton said Monday that Carr has been hitting holes harder in practice.
Carr credited former Trojan and current Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Ronald Jones as a role model and someone he’s been studying. Alongside Jones, New Orleans Saints back Alvin Kamara is another player Carr has studied to learn how to better run through holes.
“I will say some of it came from watching Ronald Jones … I would watch some of his clips before I go out to practice,” Carr said. “And the way he hits the hole is in stride, so I try to take after his game a little bit.”
It was a challenge for the backs to stay consistent during the offseason with the lack of clarity on when or if the season would begin. Carr said he had to get creative with training.
He also mentioned that he and senior receiver Tyler Vaughns trained together throughout the offseason, helping them stay in great shape coming into fall camp.
“I trained with Tyler Vaughns a whole lot,” Carr said. “Me and him tried to stay on schedule, and I got a couple of track workouts just to make sure my form is right.”
Helton has discussed the challenge of keeping players prepared with the risk of a coronavirus outbreak severely cutting down the roster at any moment. Jinks highlighted the same regarding the running backs.
“This season, especially with some of the obstacles that we may potentially have to overcome,” Jinks said, “I’ve got seven [or] eight guys in my running back room right now and number eight has to be ready to play.”
Arizona State, USC’s first opponent on Nov. 7, gave up an average of 125.5 rushing yards last season over 13 games, making the Sun Devils one of the toughest defenses in the Pac-12. Two of their top tacklers, junior linebacker Darien Butler and senior defensive back Evan Fields, will be back this season and attempt to contain the backs.
This is where running back depth is so crucial for the Trojans. Jinks is confident all backs will be prepared and ready to go at any time.
Jinks also hopes the offense is going to be more fast-paced, similar to an Air Raid scheme. At the same time, he hopes the backs will be more powerful.
“We want to be one-cut runners … we want to be violent when we have the football in our hand,” Jinks said. “We want to take it to our opponents and you do that by being more decisive.”