At USC, the question is which of six highly qualified running backs will emerge. At UCLA, the question is who, if anyone, will give the Bruins a running game.
At both schools there is concern about inexperienced offensive lines.
And so, as the 2008 college football season rapidly approaches, there is uncertainty about who will carry the ball for the Los Angeles schools – and how successfully.
Most of the attention is recent weeks has been focused on the quarterbacks. Mark Sanchez was injured at USC and Ben Olson at UCLA, leaving backups to compete for playing time.
But with USC preparing for Virginia on Aug. 31 and UCLA getting ready for Tennessee on Sept. 1, running backs have moved into the spotlight.
Joe McNight is being groomed for a big sophomore season at USC, and Stafon Johnson is the most likely to earn playing time too.
If those two get most of the work what happens to C.J. Gable, the steadiest of the candidates early in his career? And Allen Bradford? And Marc Tyler? And Broderick Green, who resembled NFL star Jerome Bettis early in practices a year ago before becoming injured, meaning he was big and fast?
Bradford has become an important special teams player. Green lost 20 pounds in preparation for this season. Tyler was set back in his freshman year by an injury, and at USC it’s not easy to climb back up the depth chart.
Johnson gained 58 yards in five carries in a scrimmage at the Coliseum Aug. 16, indicating he’s becoming important in Coach Pete Carroll’s plans. In an earlier scrimmage he hardly played at all.
Whoever carries the ball will depend heavily on a new offensive line – the Trojans’ biggest question mark as the season begins.
At UCLA it will be up to Khalil Bell and Chris Markey to produce a running game. But the Bruins’ offensive line not only lacks experience it also lacks imposing credentials. These are not high school All-Americans who merely lack college experience. And they’ve had difficulty in practice opening holes and protecting passers.
Bell, who gained 795 yards last season before suffering a knee injury, is described by offensive coordinator Norm Chow as “an NFL running back.”
Expectations are annually so high at USC that any defeat is magnified, and two losses represent a disappointing year. So don’t expect much experimenting at any position and newcomers will have to be plenty good in practice to get on the field at all.
UCLA is merely looking for any ray of hope in Rick Neuheisel’s first season as coach.
A finish in the middle of the pack in the Pac-10 would likely be good enough to convince boosters a new Westwood era is underway.