After a resurgence in the later half of the 2016 season, the USC Trojans are now poised for a breakout campaign in 2017. The Trojans boast a young, talented wide receiver -corps with a Heisman-level quarterback in Sam Darnold - that will look to set Pac-12 secondaries on fire come fall.
However, the group that’s going to determine whether USC can make a CFB playoff push will be the running backs. Luckily for the Trojans and their fans, the position group is loaded.
Gone are the days of thunder, lightning and the traditional pro-style offense we’ve grown accustomed to for the USC offense. In its place, a high-powered spread attack, predicated on one cut, and speed backs. This fall USC will be powered by a trio of juniors who are absolute speed merchants, which I have decided to nickname: Mach 3.
Ronald Jones II
The unquestioned leader of the Mach 3, the 6’1” 195 lbs. junior has led the team in rushing yards since he set foot on campus in 2015 - a trend likely to continue in the 2017 season, as Jones is likely to be the starter in the fall. The shiftiness and burst that Jones possess are phenomenal - he is a legitimate threat to take any handoff to the house.
That ability was on full display in 2016 when Jones had a 61-yard touchdown run vs the Cal Bears, followed by a 66 yard run against the Oregon Ducks a week later. Then, against USC’s two biggest rivals, UCLA and Notre Dame, he ripped off a 60-yarder and a 51-yarder. With talented and speedy wide receivers on the outside, and a Heisman trophy candidate QB, defenses are going to have their work cut out for them and Jones might have an easier path than last season.
With Justin Davis now in the NFL and Ronald Jones II ascending into the full-time starter position, the former four-star recruit Aca’Cedric Ware is poised to be the number two back in 2017.
Ware showed a lot of promise in the 2016 season, tallying 397 yards and 2 touchdowns on the ground. Ware’s skills were on full display vs Arizona where he racked up 103 yards and a touchdown on only 12 carries. He followed up his breakout performance with 130 yards on 20 carries against Cal just 5 days later. I expect Ware to get a lot more carries this season (he only received 78 in 2016) but with the up-tempo spread offense likely to become faster now that Darnold is more comfortable, you can look for Ware to get 100-150 carries this season.
Dominic Davis is the final - and fastest - member of the Mach 3. Davis is also the one that excites me the most when I think about how Coach Tee Martin will deploy these three in his offense. Davis has primarily taken snaps as a running back but has also filled in at wide receiver as well.
Injuries kept him limited in 2016, but I expect a higher impact from Davis in 2017. With his versatility and sheer speed, flexing him in and out of the backfield can be a dangerous wrinkle for the rest of the Pac-12 defensive coordinators to think about.
The Deep Reserves
Though the Mach 3 are who I expect to have the largest impact this fall for the Trojans rushing attack, there are a few new faces with the potential to have an impact as well. The first is redshirt freshman Vavae Malepeai. The 6’0, 190-pound tailback missed all of his rookie season after breaking his shoulder blade. However, after seeing him in the spring game, I think Malepeai could provide that tough, short yardage, in between the tackle running to close out games in the fourth quarter.
Another running back to keep an eye on is incoming freshman Steven Carr. Coming in as one of the top backs in the country, and one of the prize recruits of USC’s 5th ranked recruiting class, we’ll have to wait to see how he acclimates to life in Los Angeles. If he handles the transition from high school to Division 1A, with a 6-foot 203-pound frame he could develop into the perfect complement to the Mach 3 late in the year when it’s time to push towards a CFB playoff spot.