There figured to be some fallout, some changes to come from USC’s congested backfield, which again limited most of the Trojans’ running backs in 2020.
And on Monday evening, redshirt sophomore Markese Stepp officially entered the NCAA transfer portal.
Stepp, who is from Indianapolis, Ind., logged 45 carries for 165 yards and 3 touchdowns in five games this season, missing one game for a pectoral strain. Perhaps more frustrating to him, though, was that his share of the workload diminished as the season went along.
After receiving 14 and 12 carries in the first two games before missing that third game at Utah due to injury, Stepp returned to action two weeks later with just 5 carries vs. Washington State and then touched the ball only once vs. UCLA.
Head coach Clay Helton said after that game that the staff made a concerted decision to lean on redshirt senior Vavae Malepeai and senior Stephen Carr in that game. When Malepeai came out of that one with a sprained knee, Helton projected big things for Stepp in the Pac-12 championship game vs. Oregon, but USC was dominated up front by the Ducks. Stepp managed 25 yards and a TD on 13 carries.
Overall, USC ranked 120th out of 127 FBS teams in rushing at just 97.33 yards per game — the second-lowest total for a season on record for the Trojans. The offensive line struggled to create push or rushing lanes week after week.
As a redshirt freshman, Stepp had averaged a team-best 6.4 yards per carry and was emerging as a focal point before a significant season-ending ankle injury that required surgery and a lengthy recovery. He dropped to 3.7 YPC this season, but a lot of those touches were on short-yardage situations — many doomed before they began. Stepp did have the Trojans’ longest run of the season at 49 yards.
He wasn’t the only to struggle to get any rhythm on the ground for USC this season. Carr averaged 3.8 YPC (down from 5.5) and Malepeai 4.4 YPC (down from 4.8).
Sophomore Kenan Christon was actually the odd man out in the running back rotation, though, getting just 10 carries for 70 yards.
USC also had to have some conversations leading up to the early signing period to assure 4-star Rivals250 RB Brandon Campbell to affirm his Trojans decision.
USC’s running back picture is still uncertain for 2021 as Carr and Malepeai have to formally decide they want to take advantage of the extra year afforded them with the NCAA not counting this season against any player’s eligibility. Neither have publicly commented since the season, and Carr said in the preseason that was something he hadn’t yet thought about.
Malepeai has been a favorite of the coaching staff the last two years, and he led USC with 54 carries for 238 yards and 3 TDs.
At the least, USC will have Christon, the lightning fast playmaker who burst onto the scene with 5 touchdowns and a number of long gains over the second half of his freshman season in 2019, along with Campbell, a true three-down back joining the Trojans as an early enrollee out of Houston, Texas, and then whatever Malepeai and Stepp decide. Neither are on the NFL draft radar, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see both back in 2021.
The bigger question is how is USC going to fix the offensive line issues and breathe life into that rushing attack?
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