Lane Kiffin didn't mince words when asked about his running backs corps Monday, with the unit qualifying as at least somewhat of a disappointment through five games this season.
Marc Tyler has been the starter since he was reinstated from suspension after Week 1, but he has not been the clear No. 1 Kiffin and the Trojans hoped for. Instead, late in games, the USC head coach has frequently found himself turning to other members of the backfield like Curtis McNeal for crucial carries -- a departure from his often-stated desire to rely on the same one or two backs throughout a game and throughout a season.
And, so, this system -- these four backs and a potential fifth joining this week in George Farmer -- has not been up to par the Trojans' coaches set in the offseason.
"From the day we got here, I told you guys this, 'This is not what we wanted,' " Kiffin said Monday. "We didn’t want a system where there’s new guys every week and we’re looking at something [new every week]. We want it like it was before.
"But for whatever reason we can’t get it to that point. And it wasn’t that point I think for the couple years we were gone, too. I’d love to get it back there.”
The reason is that none of these backs are dominant. They're all good in their own separate ways -- Tyler a smart, crafty back with good vision, D.J. Morgan a speedster, Curtis McNeal a bowling ball and Dillon Baxter among the most agile players around. But none of them have, as Kiffin said Monday, produced "near enough explosive plays" on the ground for the Trojans this season.
Think of it like this, equating baseball terms to football carries: Tyler is a consistent singles hitter, with good potential for doubles and, rarely, a triple or two. McNeal, the team's second-leading rusher, is similar, with maybe a slightly worse batting average but a better slugging percentage because of a better big-play potential.
But neither one of those guys is a home-run hitter, and, while Baxter and/or Morgan can both potentially break things deep, they're boom-or-bust types, low-average guys with good power.
“We'd love for them to be home runs," Kiffin said of his team's penchant for singles and doubles. "We’d love to be having guys averaging 7-8 yards a carry and a bunch of long runs, we’d always take that. The explosiveness is there in our passing game right now and it’s not in our running game and you feel that throughout the game and that’s why we’ve been more heavy running the ball, which we can’t do that all year long.
"We’ll get exposed if we keep trying to do that."
Getting exposed is not a laughing matter, and Kiffin makes a good point about it. The Matt Barkley to Robert Woods connection is going to be tougher to develop each week as the season wears on if USC can't find a consistent one-two tandem at running back.
Maybe that'll come sooner rather than later in Farmer. Maybe Tyler will shake off what Kiffin continues to describe as rust from missing training camp because of the suspension, or maybe McNeal will finally get the chance to carry the ball 10 or 15 times.
The key to the rest falling in place remains Tyler, who is going to get more chances to prove he deserves to keep that No. 1 role the rest of the season. And Kiffin said Monday -- in what could easily be heard as an excuse -- that Tyler wasn't yet at full strength at any point this season, including the Arizona State loss last month in which he had a crucial second-half fumble that gave the Sun Devils key momentum.
"He’s still getting back into it, but he’s there now," Kiffin said of Tyler. "As we played our game two weeks ago he was still a guy that missed that training camp that everybody would have had, kind of like a holdout.
"I think he’s at his best now that’s he’s been.”