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September 10, 2008

USC running backs don't mind sharing load

RELATED: Ohio State relies on running back tradition

LOS ANGELES After USC tailback Stafon Johnson broke free for a long run in practice last week, he didn't bother to see if coach Pete Carroll was watching.

Instead, he pointed upward, toward the photo deck.

"The eye in the sky doesn't lie," Johnson said. "Anything that happens during these workouts those cameras are going to catch it."

That can be a good thing and a bad thing if you're a running back at USC, where every cut, carry and catch is analyzed in the on-going battle to earn playing time.

"At most other schools, I'd be getting 25 carries a game," sophomore C.J. Gable said. "But at a school like USC, you just hope to get on the field."

No team in the country blends talent and depth as well as the top-ranked Trojans, who play host to No. 5 Ohio State on Saturday in the most-anticipated game of the regular season.

Five USC tailbacks scored touchdowns in the Aug. 30 opener against Virginia, and four are in the Trojans' regular rotation. Joe McKnight, who is listed atop the depth chart, had six touches in the 52-7 victory. Allen Bradford got nine, as did Gable and Johnson.

"When you get in, that might be the only opportunity you get to show something," Bradford said. "You've got to make the most of it. There are so many great guys on this team. If you have one play just one where you don't give 110 percent effort that might be the difference between staying in or coming out."

Not that anyone is complaining.

Spend some time around USC's tailbacks, and you'll hardly sense an air of angst or tension. They said they'd trade a few carries for the chance to compete for a national title each season.

"No one is closer," Johnson said. "It's like a brotherly bond.

"When you come out of high school, you're used to being the No. 1 guy. It's only natural to think you should be playing more. But after a while, you start to understand the concept of team. You realize that having so many good backs is helping your cause instead of hurting it."

Schools such as Virginia can attest to that. While the Cavaliers' defense was beginning to tire, USC wasn't missing a beat. Because they distributed the carries evenly among four players, the Trojans kept attacking Virginia with fresh sets of legs.

Making things more difficult for opponents is that each Trojan has a different style.

McKnight is the versatile back who's a skilled receiver. Gable is a punishing blocker. Johnson is smooth and slippery. And at 225 pounds, Bradford who some thought would be a college linebacker is a bruiser who picks up tough yards.

Gable gave a matter-of-fact shrug of the shoulders when asked how teams should scheme against USC's ground game.

"You can't," he said. "Seriously, you can't prepare for us. Some teams have physical running backs, some teams have fast running backs, some teams have agile running backs. Then there's us. We've got all of them.

"We've got so many weapons that it's hard for another team to stop us."

If any team can slow the Trojans, you'd think it would be Ohio State, which has played for the national championship in each of the past two seasons. Led by All-American linebacker James Laurinaitis, the Buckeyes won't be intimidated by USC's potent running attack.

Still, devising a game plan won't be easy. The Trojans had a bye week after beating Virginia, so there's little game film to analyze. And Carroll seems intent on sticking with the tailback-by-committee approach.

"I love our guys," Carroll said. "I love the way they play. It's a very exciting group that we have a lot of flexibility with. We'll go with the guy that seems to be the most effective with the game plan. We're not going to worry about how many times each one touches the ball."

Neither will NFL scouts, who said USC's tailbacks won't be looked upon with skepticism simply because they have a few less carries.

"Everyone knows that USC has the best players," one NFL scout said. "It doesn't matter if the kid is a backup or not. If he's having any semblance of success here, he's going to get looked at (by NFL personnel). What he does with that chance is up to him."

Comforting as that might be, this cast of Trojans is hardly thinking that far ahead. Their main concern is performing well Saturday against Ohio State when and if they're given the opportunity.

RELATED: Ohio State relies on running back tradition

Jason King is a college football and basketball writer for Yahoo! Sports. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.

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