By Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 26, 2008
Stanley Havili doesn't actually get to be a ballcarrier too often in the Southern California offense; the Trojans have too many other, more hyped weapons to fill that role. Rather, Havili's coaches urge the sophomore fullback to pretend he's carrying the ball as he performs his tasks.
With Havili leading the way -- often executing what is known in Trojans lingo as a "surgery" blocking technique -- USC's three leading rushers last season combined to average 6.6 yards per carry. But to limit Havili's contribution to the Trojans' offense by painting him as a fullback in the traditional sense (simply a burly road grader) would not do justice to the player who amassed the fourth-most receptions and receiving yards on the team in 2007.
"He's versatile; he is our offense," junior running back Stafon Johnson said of Havili. "Our offense runs through him because he can do so many things."
USC enters its 2008 campaign exactly as it has every season in recent memory: expecting to compete for a national title and with a roster talented enough to do it. Quarterback Mark Sanchez has waited for three years, behind three quarterbacks, for the chance to show he deserves to be associated with his predecessors: Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart and John David Booty.
Johnson, USC's leading returning rusher, headlines a vaunted corps of running backs that includes sophomore Joe McKnight, a player whose skill set is considered on par with that of former Trojans star Reggie Bush, and C.J. Gable, who earned high marks as a dynamic tailback and kick returner in 2006 before suffering a strained abdomen after the third game of 2007 that forced him to miss the rest of the season.
Despite the accolades and attention drawn by his backfield teammates, Havili, a 6-foot, 225-pound native of Salt Lake City, may hold just as integral a role in determining how successful USC can be this season.
"The biggest thing is he's bright, he feels comfortable all over the field and he can really catch the football," offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian said. "He brings such a different dimension to our offense."
After piling up 1,424 rushing yards and 22 touchdowns, as well as 40 receptions and 739 receiving yards as a senior in the spread offense at Salt Lake's Cottonwood High, Havili came to USC fully expecting to have shifting responsibilities. Sarkisian said the coaching staff always had envisioned a multifaceted role for Havili and stuck to that plan upon his arrival.
However, Havili broke his leg in his first collegiate start in 2006 and redshirted the season. Without a serviceable fullback, the Trojans were forced to operate in two tight end sets during running situations and managed just 128 rushing yards per game that season.
Havili returned to the lineup in 2007 and the Trojans' running game improved, averaging 197.2 yards per game. At different points during the season, Havili lined up at fullback, tailback, tight end, slot receiver and wide receiver.
"Everybody in every play has a specific duty to do," Havili said. "I'm just trying to fill my role, to do what they ask me to do."
When the play requires Havili to block, he typically performs a "surgery" technique, part of a zone blocking scheme that designates a certain area, rather than a certain opposing player, for which he is accountable.
"You really don't know what guy you're going to have . . . until one second or two seconds into the play," Havili said. "I'm not the biggest guy, so this gives me the opportunity to take players head-on instead of stopping and blocking."
Sarkisian believes zone blocking plays to Havili's strengths because it enables the fullback to act as if he's the one carrying the ball. Johnson concurred that following behind someone with similar impulses benefits the runner immensely.
"He doesn't have to block this guy or that guy every time," Sarkisian said. "He has the freedom to act as if he's running the football, which allows the running back to stay with him and follow him and trust his instincts."
But just because USC often relies on Havili's blocking and pass-catching acumen does not mean the Trojans don't believe he is capable of taking a handoff and creating an explosive play from time to time.
Lined up on its own 4-yard line for its first offensive play at Nebraska last season, USC called a quick trap to Havili. Fifty yards later, Havili was out of breath and the Trojans were out of their own territory.
"He just makes those little runs and then you see him jump over people," Johnson said. "What fullback do you know that can do stuff like that?"