USC running back Markese Stepp has endured a long rehab process from the left ankle surgery that cut short his impressive 2019 season.
Even early in preseason camp, almost a year out from the injury that tore ligaments in that ankle, running backs coach Mike Jinks said Stepp was “not where he wants to be just yet but he’s pretty dang close.”
And then, reading between the lines of the comments over the last week-plus, it seemed there had been a change to Stepp’s status of some sort as senior Stephen Carr and sophomore Kenan Christon handled the lead work in the backfield.
USC coach Clay Helton clarified Thursday that Stepp did not incur a setback to his surgically-repaired ankle but rather a new “mid-foot sprain” that he’s already moved past.
“It was just a small one, but it just needed to settle down for a second and get some confidence back,” Helton said. “Obviously, when you’re a 230-pound man that has to stick his foot in the ground and gets hit every time you touch the ball, we’re ultra protective with him, especially coming off of an injury. But it was a new injury and a minor one, but he has looked phenomenal the last two days and really has gained confidence. The next week and a half will be important to him, but he looked like Markese the last two days.”
Helton also provided a few other encouraging injury updates Thursday, noting that sophomore outside linebacker Drake Jackson, who has been limited all camp with a hamstring injury, practiced the last two days “and has done a nice job”; junior middle linebacker Kana’i Mauga (hamstring) has also returned to practice the last two days; redshirt senior running back Vavae Malepeai “has started to do individual drill work”; freshman receiver Josh Jackson (ankle) has “practiced well this week”; and fellow freshman receiver Gary Bryant Jr. (ankle) “started a running program and change of direction on the grass yesterday and looked really good.”
“So hopefully anticipating him back for game week,” Helton added on Bryant, who has very intriguing potential to emerge as a contributor as a prototypical speedy, elusive slot weapon.
As for Stepp, though, his time missed raised questions about where the redshirt sophomore stands in the crowded Trojans backfield, especially with Malepeai also progressing.
Stepp was relegated to a limited role the first part of last season despite being the Trojans most productive running back on a yards per carry basis (team-high 6.4 YPC for the season), and when he seemed primed to get a look as the true lead back following injuries to Malepeai and Carr he sustained that significant ankle injury almost immediately.
The upside is still obvious, the anticipation substantial to see what Stepp can do if he ever gets truly unleashed. But with the prolonged recovery from ankle surgery and the separate foot injury this preseason, it makes his outlook for the start of the season unclear.
“I think it’s gonna be all on his health. I mean, we know how talented the kid is and everybody knows,” Helton said. “I mean, even Stephen Carr came up to me yesterday and said, ‘Man, Coach, I’m so happy he’s back.’ Because everybody knows what he provides for us. He’s a rare commodity at 230 pounds with his athleticism, explosiveness and just physicality. And he’s different. He’s a different back than the others. We got to see that at the Notre Dame game last year, what he can bring to the table.
“So I’m appreciative to our guys because they’re very unselfish and when you got a senior like Stephen coming up to you and saying, ‘Man, I’m so glad he’s back, coach, he’s gonna help us,’ that’s a big deal. I think truly it’s just going to be a matter of how confident is he health-wise. He looks great, he seems confident and we’ve had discussions but we still got another week to go through to get kind of a pitch count or a rep count of what we can handle during a game, first game, and see where his confidence level is. But this week has been a major plus for him and really a step forward.”
One of the major questions entering this season is what USC will do if all four established running backs — Malepeai (503 rushing yards, 6 TDs, 4.8 YPC, 70 yards and 1 TD receiving last season), Carr (396-5-5.5, 143-1), Stepp (307-3-6.4) and Christon (373-2-5.5, 126-3) — are healthy at the same time, which never happened last season.
That answer won’t come until that is indeed the case, and for all the encouraging comments, Helton admitted Stepp still isn’t full-go at practice.
“We’ve limited practice to him. It’s not been the full practice. He’s doing about three-fourths of it right now,” Helton said. “The beauty of those GPS systems that each players wears, you know the exact data, real time, of how many yards he’s getting, how many explosive movements he’s doing. So we’re monitoring that, as well as Vavae, to make sure he’s not getting overworked and bringing him back in the right way. And just, he’s probably getting sick of me asking him a thousand times, ‘How you feel, how you feel, how you feel, how you feel?’ But being with Markese now for years I can tell his body language and he’s gaining confidence now by the day. And you can tell he’s chomping at the bit to get even more.”
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