Reggie Bush was such a spectacular novelty at Southern Cal -- the exceedingly rare player who actually turned his unmatched versatility as a runner, receiver and return man into staggering production in all three phases -- that the idea of discovering another all-purpose threat of the same caliber is simultaneously too impossible to contemplate and too fascinating not to. In five years since Bush left SC, only three players (Percy Harvin at Florida, Jeremy Maclin at Missouri and C.J. Spiller at Clemson) have come close to occupying the lethal territory he pioneered under offensive coordinator Norm Chow in 2004 and exploited to maximum effect in '05 under Chow's baby-faced successor, Lane Kiffin. The original "Next Reggie Bush" at USC, Joe McKnight, was a virtual Reggie clone as a massively hyped recruit in 2007, but only about half as productive in three largely disappointing seasons.
But time marches on, Kiffin is back in charge of the Trojans after missing the entire McKnight era, and the lure of acquiring and deploying the next generation of ultimate weapon hasn't diminished -- in fact, with early-enrolling, five-star freshman Dillon Baxter living up to high expectations during a "phenomenal" start to his first spring camp, the obligatory Bush comparison is alive and well:
Kiffin wants to use Baxter, who played several positions in high school, in multiple roles similar to Bush. The comparison means even more to Baxter because like Bush, he is from San Diego.
"It's an honor to be compared to Reggie Bush," Baxter said. "Hopefully, I'll get all these positions down. I'm not sure where I'll be playing. They're going to move me around once I get all the running back plays down."
Kiffin wants Baxter to start at running back and then move him around. Baxter gained 2,974 yards but also played quarterback and passed for another 1,922 at Mission Bay High School last season. That's one reason he is expected to play quarterback at some point this season, if USC chooses to use a wildcat formation.
Baxter's emergence would put a decided crimp in the other major development in the Trojan backfield this spring, senior Allen Bradford's attempt to become the feature back, a role that never existed in nine years under Kiffin's old boss, Pete Carroll. Since 2001, Carroll's first season, no USC back has come close to averaging 20 carries per game, or to keeping the competition on the bench for long. (McKnight's 1,000-yard season last fall was aided by the freak weight room accident that sidelined his best colleague, Stafon Johnson, and Bradford's role subsequently increased to full-time status as the year wore on.) Even before the embarrassment of recruiting wealth pushed the depth chart into the realm of the absurd, it's always been backfield by committee.
Of course, that was true when Bush's star was at its brightest, too, and it was never enough to completely eclipse LenDale White's contributions as the thunder to Bush's lightning: White lumbered to more than 2,400 yards and 41 touchdowns in two years, providing the consistent threat between the tackles that prevented defenses from following Bush everywhere he went. It's hard not hard to see Kiffin scheming to use Baxter and Bradford, a 235-pound, White-esque battering ram, to complement each other in the same way -- the same way that McKnight was supposed to complement Stafon Johnson and later Bradford over the last two years, and that former five-star prospects C.J. Gable (quick slasher) and Marc Tyler (thick power back) would be expected to fall into one of the two roles if they ever worked their way through a thicket of injuries and competition to find regular playing time.
We don't know yet if the turmoil of the last six months -- on-field collapses, sudden coaching overhaul, the culmination of major NCAA investigations -- has permanently diluted the USC brand, but we do know, talent-wise, that the Trojans look the same as the dominant outfits we've known for most of the last decade. As long as that's the case, the expectations will continue to look the same, too, even as the faces continue to change.
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Hat tip: CFT