Can USC’s running game find instant success under Lincoln Riley?

View Original Notice ? Can USC’s running game find instant success under Lincoln Riley?

LOS ANGELES — One aspect of Lincoln Riley’s tenure at Oklahoma that can get lost in the shuffle was the Sooners’ success running the ball. The two Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks get much of the spotlight, but Riley’s teams were dominant on the ground.

In Riley’s tenure at Oklahoma, his offenses averaged 218.8 rushing yards per game. In five out of seven seasons, the Sooners averaged more than 200 ground yards per game, maxing out at 247.4 in 2018.

That’s a far cry from what has become the norm at USC, which last averaged over 200 rushing yards per game in 2016 and in 2020 managed only 97.3. But Riley will try to revamp the rushing attack in his image during his first year as head coach at USC.

In Riley’s experience, successful running games require a combination of personnel, fundamentals and scheme.

“We’ve committed to it and I think that’s the key to a good run game anywhere you go,” Riley said after Tuesday’s spring practice, his first at the Coliseum since being hired in November. “I think with what we have on this current roster I don’t see anything from a limitations standpoint that says we can’t run the ball well.”

The running backs room looks very different than it did a year ago. Former TCU transfer Darwin Barlow is the only back remaining from last year’s roster. The Trojans added Oregon transfer Travis Dye, the Pac-12’s leader in all-purpose yards last season, as well as Stanford back Austin Jones.

And Riley hired Kiel McDonald away from Utah to lead the group after he helped the Utes to finish 13th nationally in rushing in 2021. McDonald has been impressed as he’s learned Riley’s playbook the past few months.

“He’s very creative,” McDonald said. “There’s so many answers and those answers come on the fly. They come very, very quickly. It’s a unique run game. It’s not just a zone that will go with an Air Raid offense. There’s a lot more moving parts than that, so I see why they’ve been so successful at Oklahoma.”

A running back is only ever as good as the offensive line blocking ahead of him. So far the reviews have been positive for how the USC line, returning four starters from a year ago, has performed learning the new blocking schemes.

“That’s a senior offensive line,” McDonald said. “They’re coming along.”

And McDonald and Riley have both been pleased by the play of the running backs. Like the line, they bring a lot of experience to the position and now are competing for their place in the pecking order.

Though a possibility of a position-by-committee remains, McDonald’s Utah teams always tended to have a running back who established himself as the lead back over the course of a season, and that likely will be the case between Dye, Jones and Barlow, too.

“I believe at some point somebody’s going to step up,” McDonald said. “We’re fortunate enough to have three really good players.”

BRIEFLY

Cornerback Mekhi Blackmon wore a black boot on his left ankle as he watched practice from the sidelines on Tuesday, while receiver Gary Bryant Jr. was carted off following practice. Riley characterized both injuries as “nicks” and said both players would have played had there been a game on Tuesday.

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