LOS ANGELES — Four years trying to bang your way to the top of the running back depth chart at the University of Southern California without much reward might have left most athletes with NFL aspirations surrendering, "Enough."
But if you’re a tailback, what are a few extra hits? Last winter, Allen Bradford, the fifth-year senior, passed on turning pro, mainly, he said, so he could finish what he started.
"I didn’t feel my USC career was what I wanted," he said after a recent practice, as the Trojans prepared for their opener at Hawaii Sept. 2.
"I came back to shoot for (the) No. 1 (spot), play on Saturdays and give my all."
The No. 1 spot is still, at least for now, up for grabs. Top freshman prospect Dillon Baxter has temporarily taken himself out of the tailback mix, losing the opportunity to play the first game for violating team rules.
At different times this summer, senior C.J. Gable, junior Marc Tyler and sophomore Curtis McNeal also have looked game-ready. In other words, tailback at USC is still the same old logjam it was when Bradford entered the school in 2006. Over his career, he has endured the likes of Chauncey Washington, Stafon Johnson and Joe McKnight eating up carries, while more prep stars just kept rolling in.
He considered transferring, especially after a hip injury cost him the 2008 season, but he resisted the temptation. Sticking to his USC dream didn’t make the competition any easier.
One year it felt so overcrowded that Pete Carroll took to listing as many as five players as tied for No. 1 on the depth chart, just so they could say they were, even if they didn’t play.
New coach Lane Kiffin doesn’t want to play that game. This week, he said, his philosophy is to find a pair he likes, and to stick with them.
"For the most part, it’s a two-man system," he said.
He referenced his approach at Tennessee last year, where Bryce Brown and Montario Hardesty were ticketed to share the ball equally. Hardesty ended up with more carries than anyone in the SEC, with Brown the backup.
"I want to find two guys who are different, maybe three," said Kiffin. "But I don’t want it to be four or five guys. They don’t get their rhythm that way."
For Bradford, that may be as good as it can get. Most observers believe Baxter, who Kiffin lauds for his "Reggie (Bush) type skills," will get one of those spots, maybe even by Week 2. Bradford, at a bullish 6-0, 235 pounds, runs more north-south like LenDale White, to use the Bush-White prototype that Kiffin knew as an offensive assistant to Carroll in the early and mid 2000s.
Last year, Bradford did have enough of a breakout year (668 yards in 115 carries) behind the now-departed McKnight to justify his pro dream. But his new positions coach and offensive coordinator, Kennedy Pola, said Bradford did the right thing by coming back.
"He realized there’s a lot to learn," said Pola, who the last few years has coached some of the NFL’s best running backs, including Maurice Jones-Drew and Chris Johnson.
Pola also noted that, for all the prep talent USC has recruited, "There have been only two guys who’ve done it here and played (in the NFL)," referring to the successful Bush-White backfield tandem.
Pola, who didn’t arrive at USC until a few weeks ago, said he doesn’t know Bradford well, yet, but "likes his demeanor. He’s a focused young man. He wants to do well."
As a fifth-year year player, Bradford is embracing the role.
"I’m going to be a voice out there," said Bradford. "I want to show it in practice and in performance. I want to be the hammer, the guy people look up to."
If it takes five years, so be it. Last year. Last chance.
"I still have a lot to prove," said Bradford. "I haven’t accomplished anything, yet."
There is one thing. He didn’t give up early.
(Contact Gregg Patton at gpatton(at)PE.com.)
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)