Throughout human history, battles for ascent have rarely been pretty.
Leadership and positions of power come at a high cost and people have long fought to stay on top. One critical throne at USC, if not all of college football, is the starting tailback position. It has been the place where five USC backs launched successful Heisman campaigns. It is where Reggie Bush and LenDale White conquered all of college football. It is the spot that launched Bush into fame and fortune and helped USC to its seventh overall Heisman trophy, breaking a streak of five consecutive quarterbacks winning the award. Make no mistake, it is a most powerful and important position. This spring and fall, a new battle will happen to determine who inherits that vacant but lofty position.
The early leaders for the job are a pair of familiar names: senior Hershel Dennis and junior Chauncey Washington. Both players have their merits. Dennis is the only back on the roster with starting experience at the Division I level, having started all 13 contests in 2003. He was also a highly coveted recruit from prestigious Long Beach Poly High School and his commitment was a major symbolic prize early in the Carroll era. Washington was also a top-10 recruit at his position, arriving in the same class as Bush and White.
Unfortunately for both players, off-field, academic, and injury issues were big enough hurdles to keep them on the sidelines for multiple seasons. Washington suffered a stress fracture in his ankle early in the 2003 season and was held out a total of six games. Although he would return, it was determined that he had not recovered, thus forcing him to miss the rest of the season. The following two seasons he struggled with academics, redshirting one and being declared academically ineligible the other. Dennis was involved in an offseason rape investigation. Charges were never filed against him, but he had broken several team rules. The incident would hurt his standing with the team, costing him carries during the 2004 season that saw Bush and White emerge as the team's best backs. Things would get worse for Dennis when he tore several knee ligaments in preparation for the Orange Bowl. He would miss the entire 2005 season.
Although personal mistakes and unfortunate injuries have slowed their careers, Dennis and Washington now have a great opportunity to take ownership of USC's tailback position. Dennis is expected to participate in spring ball, and is already involved in senior practices. Washington will not participate in spring ball, but it is anticipated his academic standing will be the better for it. By most reports he is in shape and doing what is expected of him in all other team functions. With the injury woes to sophomore back Michael Coleman and junior Desmond Reed, Dennis enters spring ball as the only available scholarship back. This will give him an opportunity to show off his skills, and shake off any lingering rust from two atrophied seasons.
There is a lot of buzz about the stable of incoming backs, but the collective talent and veteran savvy, not to mention power of incumbency available to Dennis and Washington means both will have a great shot at earning the starting job.
For precedent, look no further than USC's 2003 season. The previous year saw USC complete a resurgent 10-2 season by winning a Heisman trophy behind quarterback Carson Palmer and an Orange Bowl victory over Iowa. Expectations were high after luring the nation's No. 1 recruiting class to Troy. Most of the roster was intact, but there were vacancies to be filled in the backfield. Matt Leinart would win the quarterback job, but he had close to no experience and fan attention was drawn to his progress at the position. The tailback spot also had an inexperienced starter in Hershel Dennis. Dennis beat out a trio of talented freshmen in Bush, Washington and White, all top 10 recruits at their positions. He won out on talent but also because of a rough early schedule and his experience within the offense after a year's worth of practices.
USC would rely on Dennis quite a bit in the early going, as he would record 21, 16, 9 and 14 carries through USC's first four games against Auburn, BYU, Hawaii and California. He never broke the 100-yard mark, but he did contribute two clinching touchdown runs against Auburn and BYU. As talented as Bush and White were, they never truly unseated Dennis. There was talk of another backfield battle entering the 2004 season, despite both of their accomplishments and abilities. Remember that Bush and White are now likely first-round draft choices, and Bush won the Heisman trophy last season. It is ample evidence to show that Dennis' experience and skills are good enough to compete for a starting job at Tailback-U and hold off two of the best backs in school history.
As for Washington, his 2003 efforts also give a clue to his abilities. As fall camp broke, it was felt by many that he had a slight lead over Bush and White. He was viewed as the compromise, a combination of Bush's speed and playmaking and White's toughness and power. Injuries would unfortunately derail that season and academic issues would take care of two more. Hope springs eternal for the graceful Washington, however, because USC and Coach Carroll have stuck with him, providing him one more opportunity to compete for a starting job. USC wouldn't have waited so long on a guy unless they felt their patience would be rewarded, so expectations are quite high for him this year.
Also like 2003, there will be a quarterback battle to once again obscure the other backfield vacancy. This time, junior John David Booty will battle freshman Mark Sanchez. Whoever wins is likely to have a great deal of "up-and-down" moments through the season's first few games. This should shield any outside criticism of the backs while also adding internal pressure on them to correctly handle their assignments and make things easier for the quarterback. It's a major reason Dennis beat out Bush and White and battled them the entire season for starter's carries. If the 2003 season is any guide, we will see a great deal of hype about a handful of talented freshmen backs that will go on to be superstars during their USC careers. But when those first few games are played, count on two members of the old guard---two guys who also came in with a great deal of hype and expectation---to win that starting job.