McKnight vies for top spot in USC tailback corps

LOS ANGELES (AP) - Joe McKnight finally appeared ready to take his place in Southern California's star-studded lineage of tailbacks last week, rushing and receiving and relentlessly driving the Trojans to their victory at Ohio State.

Then the junior calmly got back in line this week, vying with five talented teammates for a few carries at practice.

There's nothing singular about Tailback U any longer: The No. 3 Trojans (2-0) are overflowing with talented running backs again this season under Pete Carroll. After emerging as the starter in camp, McKnight again is threatening to embrace his enormous potential.

Yet he claims he's content to be one part in the USC machine.

"The competition is one of the great things about 'SC," McKnight said. "It's never frustrating, because it saves your body. We're all healthy and happy here. It's the perfect situation for me."

Even after seven straight Pac-10 titles and BCS bowl games, one of Carroll's most underrated achievements might be his ability to keep almost every ball-carrier in his program happy, even at the expense of individual stardom.

"We're all friends," junior C.J. Gable said. "We all joke around every day still. It's not a personal thing. The best man wins the job, basically. Coach Carroll wants one of us to do that. He told us he wants somebody to get in front of somebody and step it up every week, but I guess we're pretty equal every week, too."

Four tailbacks scored touchdowns in the season opener against San Jose State, including two apiece by McKnight and Stafon Johnson. Marc Tyler, Allen Bradford and D.J. Shoemate all are waiting their turn for a larger role - an opportunity they could have received at many other schools.

"I knew I was going to come here with some other running backs," Johnson said. "You've got to be ready for anything they throw at you. We were friends before we were teammates. Everybody wants to get those 20-30 carries a game, but the way we are, we know at least four of us have to contribute."

All six tailbacks say they wouldn't have gone to another school even if they had known they might be part of a six-man rotation. McKnight was named the Trojans' starter after Gable got the honor in each of the past three years, yet Gable said he didn't care.

"The competition is only going to make me better for the NFL," Gable said. "Everybody knows you're probably not going to start right away when you get there, no matter how good you are. If I'd gone to a school where it was just handed to me, then when I got to the NFL, I'd have to start maturing there."

Carroll's beliefs in depth and versatility initially were jarring at the school where the I-formation was promoted by John McKay, whose Student Body rushing plays came to define the power college running game. The five Heisman trophies won by USC tailbacks since 1965 are prominently displayed in the center of Heritage Hall, where the current Trojans can walk by them every day.

Mike Garrett, O.J. Simpson, Charles White, Marcus Allen and Reggie Bush all won the award, while Ricky Bell and Anthony Davis were runners-up in the 1970s. LenDale White and Justin Fargas are among the position's recent stars in Carroll's tenure.

McKnight arrived at USC as the heralded successor to Bush, yet he's produced more flash than substantial achievements so far. He was injured for much of last season, and a few key fumbles - including one in this season's opener - have slowed his rise as well.

Although freshman quarterback Matt Barkley received most of the adulation for the Trojans' decisive drive at Ohio State, he largely handed off while McKnight did the work. After USC was backed up to its 5, the tailback ran five times for 32 yards and also caught a 21-yard pass.

Yet Johnson scored the winning touchdown, embracing an apparent role as the Trojans' short-yardage specialist after leading the team in rushing last season.

"It's very complicated, I guess, in terms of explaining the situation," Johnson said. "But all six of us know that we've got to contribute for us to be successful."

Washington coach Steve Sarkisian knows plenty about McKnight after his tenure on the USC staff, and he labeled the junior as the nation's most talented player this week leading up to the Trojans' visit to Seattle. Quarterbacks coach Jeremy Bates inherited the USC offense from Sarkisian during the offseason, and he initially didn't seem certain about the wisdom of Carroll's rotating cast at the position.

He's on board with it now.

"We've got a lot of talent back there," Bates said. "That's a good problem to have. They all have a special role, and they're all going to be focused on Saturdays."


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