In just a matter of weeks, USC went from a football team not running enough, to one interim head coach Clay Helton must map out how carries will be distributed.
Trojan running backs Tre Madden, Justin Davis and Ronald Jones II rushed 14, 15 and 11 times in USC's 27-21 win at Cal Saturday. In total, the Trojans ran 50 times, while quarterback Cody Kessler passed just 23.
Helton said the run-heavy strategy was predicated in part on keeping Cal's explosive “bear-raid” offense off the field.
However, USC went with a similarly ground-based offense in its 42-24 defeat of previously unbeaten Utah on Oct. 24, running 45 times against 29 pass attempts.
And, like at Cal, the rush offense was a joint venture. Madden was unavailable for that win, but Jones and Davis combined for 34 carries: 15 for Jones, 19 for Davis.
Each member of USC's three-headed backfield has proven capable of producing lofty, individual statistics, given the touches. As part of an offense Helton is retooling to showcase all three, none are going to get the carries conducive to eye-popping numbers.
Distributing touches each week isn't a formula, Helton said: “Sometimes it's a rhythm, sometimes it's the situation.”
The perhaps uncertain role USC's backs face as a result of the deep rotation could give way to malaise if any one player didn't want to share. That's not an issue the interim head coach foresees as the Trojans ready for a stretch run in pursuit of the Pac-12 South divisional title.
“We're very fortunate that we have some very unselfish players,” Helton said. “I really appreciate the way those three guys, the way they've been unselfish and played together.”
Of the three, Jones has shown true star potential in recent weeks. The true freshman has a touchdown in each of the last two games and led the Trojans in yards, despite seeing fewer carries than his teammates.
Helton said after getting 15 carries against Utah, Jones' workload was reduced in part because of a minor knee injury. Still, the young Trojan played through it to finish with 80 yards and a score.
That effort through adversity is indicative of an overall maturation process for Jones, one in which his more experienced running back partners play key roles.
“I really appreciate both Tre and Justin, how much they've helped him over this first part of the season, really come along and develop into a complete football player,” Helton said. “One [who is] better at pass protection [and] route-running. Is RoJo a complete player yet? He's extremely working to become one.”
After beating Utah, Jones cited one area in which he sees need for improvement.
“There wasn't too much slipping through [the Utah defense],” he said. “[Running backs] coach [Johnny] Nansen just coached us that we've got to get those tough yards when we can. Gotta get bigger.”
At 185 pounds, Jones has plenty of room to add bulk to his 6-foot frame. Doing so will help him be the every-down back and breakout star he's shown the potential of becoming this season.
That comes with more exposure to a collegiate weightlifting program, which Jones will have plenty of opportunity to take advantage of in the offseason. In the interim, USC has other options.
One such option?
“Two-hundred thirty pounds a very violent runner,” Helton said in reference to Madden, a redshirt senior.
Madden — a linebacker at one time in his USC career — made his two biggest plays against Cal in short-yardage situations. The first was a touchdown carry on fourth down from the Cal two-yard line, and the second, a 14-yard rush on the Trojans' final possession, converted a third down that preserved USC's six-point win.
“I don't know how much more confidence you can have in an offense than when there's 3:35 left on the clock and everybody in the stadium knows you're going to the ball,” he said. “And we hand it off six times in a row and get two big first downs.”
A split workload might not translate to huge numbers for any one of USC's three running backs, but the lesson they've learned in the Trojans' new-look offense is clear: sharing is winning.