2021 Fall Camp Preview: The running backs

Erik McKinneyabout 2 months
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Keaontay Ingram
(John McGillen/USC Athletics)

USC’s 2021 fall camp kicks off with the first full practice on Friday afternoon and we’ll be previewing camp this week with a position-by-position look at the biggest storyline, notable new and returning names and what to expect during the 14 fall camp and 25 total practices before USC starts its season against San Jose State in the Coliseum on Sept. 4.

Previous entries:

The quarterbacks


The running backs

No matter how good the USC passing attack is in 2021, it's very difficult to see the Trojans having the kind of success they want to enjoy this season if the running backs have the same kind of impact and production they did during the shortened 2020 season. USC rushed for 97.3 yards per game and of the four players who logged more than 20 carries, Vavae Malepeai led the way with 4.4 yards per attempt.

The running back room will look different in 2021 than it did in 2020, thanks to two impactful departures and two hopefully even more impactful arrivals. Gone are Stephen Carr and Markese Stepp, who both showed flashes of becoming the next great USC running back but couldn't overcome nagging injury issues that helped slow the progress of both. Here are former Texas back Keaontay Ingram and former TCU back Darwin Barlow. Both have similar stories from their respective schools, in that they've proven they can carry the load and be potent options out of the backfield, but both had playing time cut due to the emergence of outstanding true freshmen last season, in 2020's No. 1-ranked tailback Bijan Robinson for the Longhorns, and the No. 2-ranked back, Zach Evans, for the Horned Frogs.

The 6-foot, 215-pound Ingram is the guy to watch for USC this fall. He was able to come in for spring ball and looked terrific in all phases. He's a load to bring down and runs with surprising agility for a bigger back. He's also very skilled as a receiver and a comfortable pass protector. He might have the inside track to the top spot on the depth chart at this point.

If Ingram doesn't, the nod likely goes to Vavae Malepeai, who returns for his sixth year with the Trojans. He's been a hard-charging runner in his career and turned in a significant performance against UCLA late last season. He brings a veteran presence to the backfield and is someone who the USC coaches are confident will produce if given the ball.

But there are several younger players who will be charging hard this fall, and that's where the position battle could get interesting over the coming weeks. Position coach Mike Jinks has said he'd like to find a top back capable of carrying a majority of the load and a supporting back who can also contribute, rather than trying to spread a significant number of carries around to three or more backs. That means those top two spots will be coveted by the Trojan tailbacks and it'll be worth watching to see if third-year players in Kenan Christon and Barlow can get into the mix early on.

Neither was here for spring ball, with Christon participating with the USC track team and Barlow still at TCU, so both will have something of a challenge to get into the swing. Though, Christon has multiple years with the Trojans to fall back in, including some time as the No. 1 back as a true freshman in 2019, and Barlow has earned fairly significant playing time at this level as well.

Christon brings a speed element to the position that the other don't, while Barlow is a do-it-all back with very good size (5-foot-11, 205 pounds) and ability to contribute in multiple ways.

They'll be joined by true freshman Brandon Campbell, who brings a combination of a 5-foot-10, 210-pound frame and tremendous athleticism and feel for the position for a first-year player. Campbell was with USC during spring ball and impressed enough to believe a redshirt year wouldn't be necessary. But the depth chart could make that call for Campbell, and it might be a steep hill to climb over the veterans ahead of him. However things play out, his performance this fall is likely to signify that USC has a real talent ready to contribute whenever he's called upon.

USC has a fairly deep running back room at this point, with Quincy Jountti still on the roster and a capable backup in his fourth year with the Trojans. He earned a scholarship in 2019 and has appeared in every game on special teams the past two seasons. There are two walk-ons adding depth as well, in redshirt senior Samuel Oram-Jones, a grad transfer from Vanderbilt who came to USC last fall but broke his leg during the season and sat out spring ball, as well as redshirt freshman Matt Colombo, who runs hard and made a positive impression during the USC spring game.