USC’s Darwin Barlow says fight for snaps will make him better

It wasn’t long ago that Darwin Barlow was the new guy in the running backs room. At this time last spring, he was still at Texas Christian, still months away from leaving for USC.

A year later, Barlow is suddenly the last scholarship back standing from last year’s backfield. He also happens to be the least experienced, a quirk of a roster remade through the transfer portal.

“It’s like free agency!” running backs coach Kiel McDonald said with a laugh.

When Barlow met with Lincoln Riley soon after he was hired as USC’s coach, he hadn’t anticipated such an overhaul. Riley said Barlow was a good fit for USC’s new offense, and Barlow was thrilled with the assessment. He knew Riley brought the best out in his backs, with six 1,000-yard rushers in seven seasons at the helm of Oklahoma’s offense. Now all signs pointed toward a similarly significant role for the redshirt sophomore.

That vision got a lot blurrier by late January, when two starting Pac-12 backs emerged from the portal to sign with USC. Stanford’s Austin Jones committed on Jan. 20. Oregon’s Travis Dye joined a day later. Together, they would bring 5,665 career all-purpose yards and 42 total touchdowns to USC’s backfield, dwarfing the experience of their backfield-mate.

But Barlow, now suddenly thrust into a stiff competition for carries, couldn’t be happier.

“I’m excited to have them around me,” Barlow said Tuesday. “They’ve played at college programs. They’ve won. They’ve had success. I’m just happy to have them around me and to learn from them. It’s going to bring the best out of me.”

Dye and Jones said they felt the same way about joining with Riley, who promised each would be used as all-purpose backs, capable of grinding on the ground and playing a part in the passing game.

Barlow has never quite been used that way. He has just 14 catches over three seasons. But the prospect of a more versatile role has Barlow especially excited about USC’s backfield.

“He uses the running back in so many different ways,” he said.

That has meant a much more complex playbook to master this spring.

“Me and my homeboys were joking in the running back room the other day, if you didn’t know the play, you could just run a swing last year,” Barlow said. “Now, you gotta know. You’re doing everything.”

Oregon running back Travis Dye runs with the ball during a game against Washington on Nov. 6, 2021, in Seattle.

(Stephen Brashear / Associated Press)

Dye should be used to that sort of usage by now, having turned his four-year run at Oregon into one of the most prolific stretches for a running back in school history. He considered staying for another season, as well as entering the draft. Other Pac-12, Big Ten and Big 12 schools reached out, but the opportunity for him and his fiancee to return to Southern California, where he starred at Norco High, was too perfect for the All-Pac-12 rusher to turn down.

Whether he’ll have the same prolific role in USC’s backfield remains to be seen.

“There’s always going to be competition everywhere,” Dye said. “I’ve been competing my whole career. It wasn’t really a hard decision in that aspect.”

For all the 1,000-yard rushers his offense has yielded, Riley hasn’t shied away from a rotation when necessary. Two running backs had 78 or more rush attempts for Oklahoma last season. In 2020, the Sooners had four with at least 35 carries.

A similar rotation could be in the cards this season for USC, which will also add electrifying freshman Raleek Brown to the running backs room this summer.

“You can’t have just one running back,” Jones said. “You need at least two or three great running backs.”

USC has just three total in camp right now. But all three could make a claim before the fall arrives.

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