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October 6, 2007Chauncey Washington enjoys the luxury that he shares only with Stafon Johnson. USC's leading rushers have got rhythm.
"I believe I get better as the game goes on," Washington said. "I get stronger and stronger."
Running backs coach Todd McNair equivocates on the importance of "rhythm" as the debates rage on: Does USC have too many tailbacks? Does the abundance of talent prevent some Trojans from getting untracked? From finding that vaunted "rhythm?"
"Backs need a hole," McNair said. "Really. Honestly, I don't know (about rhythm).
"Sometimes ," he said before pausing, apparently ready to expand on what he learned of rhythm during a nine-year NFL career and 10 years in coaching. But he concludes with, "I don't know."
Most of USC's running backs do know, and they answered with a resounding "Yes. It matters." Consecutive reps can help a back get in sync with his offensive linemen, adjust to the opponent's tendencies, brace for the next hit and get in tune with the game's flow.
"When you're in there taking reps and you're playing the whole game, you get a feel for the defense," said sixth-year senior Hershel Dennis, who started every game for the Trojans in 2003. "You start noticing different things about the defensive linemen - if they over-pursue a lot.
"As a running back, you need to get that good feel for the game, get warmed up and get a rhythm going. Once you get a rhythm going, that's when (running backs) start busting stuff late in the game. That's when they start making big runs. A rhythm is definitely needed."
Washington can relate. Since recovering fully from a shoulder sprain, he has started the past two games and logged seven first-quarter carries for 24 yards - 3.4 yards per carry. During the final three quarters, he averages 5.9 yards per rush (32 for 190).
However, underneath the numbers, and underneath the sentiment of, "Yeah, rhythm's nice," lies a big, "So what?" Most Trojan running backs never get the chance to warm up.
"You've got to know what kind of offense you're in," Johnson said. "If you've got an offense that's highly explosive and has a lot of bullets, you're just one of the bullets.
"You've got to be able to fire off whenever they call you."
Although injuries may appear to be piling up in the backfield, USC still brings five healthy tailbacks into today's game with Stanford - six, if you include freshman Marc Tyler, who is on track to redshirt.
With Johnson likely sidelined by a bruised foot, Joe McKnight, Dennis, Allen Bradford and Desmond Reed will compete for his carries. McKnight could get the first shot, and if he takes advantage, that may not bode well for the rest of the group.
"I think you'd like to have two or three guys get the bulk of the carries," said offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, whose playcalling has helped maintain a rhythm for both Johnson and Washington this season. "Then you've got your fourth and fifth guys that you're trying to get a few carries to, just so they can be in a football game. So, when they get a ball in a crucial moment, that's not the first time they've got the ball in their hands."
The coach said a rotation is important to keep players healthy and fresh. USC wants its backs feeling crisp, so they can burst through a hole when the offensive line presents one. Sarkisian must wrestle with the border between helping runners find a groove and overworking them.
The feeling among backs is that if someone busts off a big run, he gives coaches no excuse to put someone else in. Therefore, there is pressure to produce - and produce big - on the first opportunity.
"I don't think Pete (Carroll) would take a guy out, if he sees him busting runs and going 10 yards a carry," Washington said.
Washington has rushed for 233 yards on 44 carries (a 5.3 average), while Johnson leads the Trojans with 378 yards on 46 carries (an 8.2 average). No other back has more than 14 rushes.
The sophomore Johnson was limited to three carries last season, for what coaches have called a bad attitude. This year, "I just play every play as if there ain't no tomorrow," Johnson said. "The next day's not promised to you."
He has learned, "You've got to look for whatever you get and make the best of it. If it's one carry or two carries back-to-back, make the best two carries back-to-back out of everybody else.
"Or else, you know. " End up like Johnson in 2006.
The real question is: How?
How does a running back who is not part of the original rotation - and thus denied the opportunity to find his rhythm - reel off an impressive carry or two, after standing on the cold sideline for an hour, watching a game?
Sarkisian said the Trojans' up-tempo workouts should get them ready.
"We've got to make them feel like they just played a football game," he said.
But, when Saturday arrives, it's up to the individual to remain in tune. Bradford learned this - painfully - during the season opener against Idaho.
The sophomore had expected to play a role at tailback but found himself watching every meaningful snap. He entered late, with the second-team offensive line, and had little room to run. Bradford did not help matters much, during an eight-carry, 15-yard performance.
"I was like, 'I ain't gonna play,' and I didn't feel like playing," he said of his frustration as the game wore on. "I got in and made the situation even worse.
"I wasn't really ready. I let my mentality get out of whack."
The next game, Bradford scored a late touchdown at Nebraska, before getting his chance with the first-team offense the following week. At home against Washington State, Bradford entered for one play. After catching a quick pass from John David Booty, he stretched over the goal line for a four-yard touchdown, as a Cougar defender brought him down.
"You've got to just think that you're going to get in at any time," Bradford said. "Standing on the sidelines, you've got to just stay warm and be ready. When you get your chance, you've got to make the most of it."
Fullback Stanley Havili probably spends more time on the field than any tailback, but he has carried only four times. That has not stopped him from making his runs count.
Havili rushed once for 50 yards, another time for 10 and the final two for short touchdowns.
"I think if you get 20 carries a game, you're going to definitely get in a rhythm," said Havili, a 1,000-plus yard rusher in high school. "But if you get two or five carries a game, you've got to make it a rhythm. I think it's more of a rhythm of doing things right, doing things right in my head. If I do things right blocking and stuff, then it kind puts me in a rhythm."
The system is not conducive to individual success, but each back knew what he was getting into when he committed to USC.
"How I see it is, when you've got your chance, you've just got to make the best of it," McKnight said. "That's all I've really got to say."
Jonathan Kay can be reached at Jon@USCFootball.com