Pete Carroll and the Trojans of Southern California gave a young Lane Kiffin the play-calling duties in 2005, and the rest was history.
The offense hummed to the tune of 49.1 points and 579.8 yards per game (yawn, nbd) and a Heisman Trophy for running back Reggie Bush (give it back, NCAA). This same offense featured 2004 Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart at quarterback, a 1,302 yard rusher in LenDale White, and two All-American receivers in Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith.
Is that any good?!
The entire system fired on all cylinders, but the engine to this offense was the two-headed monster in the backfield of Bush and White. One was an electrifying dual-threat who terrorized defenses from the backfield, from the slot, and in the open field. The other was a throwback to the new-age of college football, earning the tough yards between the tackles and getting the respect in the red zone with his nose for the goal line.
Now, just shy of two decades later, the Rebels boast two backs cut from a similar cloth.
Jerrion Ealy has a skill set akin to Bush and Snoop Conner is the kind of guy you want toting the rock, taking pride in burying defenders in his wake. I would be remiss not to mention the difference in size, as Ealy stands 5-foot-8, 190 pounds to Bush’s 6-foot-0, 203 pounds and Conner stands 5-foot-10, 215 pounds to White’s 6-foot-2, 235 (on the lighter side) pounds. However, both Mississippi natives are freak athletes and the backfield in Oxford is ready to explode like it did in Los Angeles through the early 2000s.
The common denominator merging these two timelines is Kiffin.
The 45-year-old, 22-year coaching veteran is the guru of revolutionizing offenses and has done it every single place he’s been. He’s been a part of five conference championship teams largely due to his offenses taking center stage and overwhelming opposing defenses. Now, his new challenge is getting Ole Miss back to competing with the heavy hitters in the SEC West.
And centering your offense around two Bush/White clones isn’t the worst idea, right?
Jerrion Ealy has home run speed.
We all know about Mr. Bush. He was the Shakespeare of college football, torching opposing defenses with speed and brilliance. He doth rise from the ground like feathered Mercury striding the heavens.
But, Mr. Ealy is no slouch. As a true freshman in the SEC, the Walnut Grove, Miss. native ran for 722 yards and six touchdowns, averaging 6.9 nice yards per carry. He flashed that same home run speed that Bush showed during his years at the Coliseum.
Hey y’all, meet Jerrion Ealy! Touchdown, Ole Miss! pic.twitter.com/0PjItJ74nd— The Rebel Walk (@TheRebelWalk) October 20, 2019
Kiffin knows a thing or two about Bush and one could surmise he is itching to utilize Ealy like he used the former Helix High School star in the Pac-12. The Rebels’ new head coach is known for getting his playmakers the football often and getting them in space. Back before spread offenses were all the rage, Kiffin was using Bush in a variety of ways for the Trojans. Whether it was out of the backfield, screen passes, or finding a mismatch in the slot, he got the football to him as much as possible.
Another way to get Ealy involved: special teams.
Jerrion Ealy ⭐️ ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ pic.twitter.com/dCCtZK9Hm8— OMRebelNation (@OMRebelNation) September 14, 2019
Southern Cal used Bush in return situations and on USC’s career yardage lists, he is fourth in kickoff returns and sixth in punt returns. Conservative, hesitant thinking would keep a team’s best athlete on the sideline to avoid injury. But that’s stupid, and Kiffin buys into the ideology that scared money doesn’t make money. More touches = more chances of electric plays happening.
Expect Kiffin to use Ealy as often as possible in 2020.
Snoop Conner loves to get down and dirty.
LenDale White might not have been as flashy as Bush, but he got it done and then some. He was the Hemingway of the early 2000s college football era, coming and going with streamlined power and without using a lot of decorative maneuvers.
The Littleton, Co. native ran for 1,302 yards and 24 touchdowns while sharing the backfield with the Heisman Trophy winner. He didn’t possess the speed Bush had, but every lightning needs its thunder.
Lendale White with a yucky stiff arm pic.twitter.com/phsim978Vu— seth galina (@pff_seth) February 12, 2018
Snoop can bring the thunder.
Conner has a similar ability to pound the rock up the gut AND has speed to boot. The Hattiesburg, Miss. native ran for 512 yards and five touchdowns in 2019, punishing defenders with some NSFW pad level and a whole lot of bad intentions.
The one thing that sets Conner apart from White is his speed. Conner has been clocked as fast as a 4.57 second 40-yard-dash, while his Trojan equivalent would not have had nearly the same number.
• @OleMissFB— Ole Miss Athletics (@OleMissSports) April 17, 2020
• Oct. 5, 2019
• Freshman Snoop Conner busts the game open with an 84-yard TD run vs. Vanderbilt on Homecoming
• Longest rush by a Rebel since 2014
• Ole Miss: 413 rushing yards#RCA20 | #HottyToddy pic.twitter.com/aDzSgNaFBz
So regardless of who Kiffin and Lebby decide to take the handoff, there’s going to be game-breaking speed in the backfield. But, like White, Kiffin knew that he was better-suited for getting the tough yardage between the tackles and leave the outside runs and sweeps to Bush.
They balance each other out, opening up the passing game.
As you can see, Bush complimented White a lot like Ealy compliments Conner. And with that, there are going to be a ton of options for Ole Miss in 2020 when it comes to running the football or using those backs in space. No matter the avenue that is taken, both Jerrion and Snoop will bring a ton of fireworks to Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.
The duel-threat backs open up the air attack by forcing opponents to key on the run first, especially if John Rhys Plumlee is named the starting quarterback. With the threat of either Rebel runner breaking one down the sideline, defenses are forced to have their safeties in a position to step up into the second level if either gets loose and must keep linebackers at bay more often than sending five defensive backs on to the field. That opens up the deep ball.
Watch here as the entire Virgina Tech defense keys on White, who is running beyond the tackles to the far sideline behind a wall of Trojan linemen. The play reads run.
Instead of giving the ball off, however, Matt Leinart pulls the handoff and comes back across the field. Steve Smith, who is split out to the far sideline on the snap, sneaks past the linebacker and cuts back into the field in front of the cushioned-coverage corner.
We get it, the play action pass is not revolutionary. The Rebels ran it last year, but it didn’t quite look the same as the Trojans.
Jeff Lebby, who will call the plays in 2020, ran 7.7 as many run plays as he did throw the ball with Central Florida last season. In the same timeframe, Ole Miss ran the ball nearly 20 times more than it did pass. With Conner and Ealy a year older, a year stronger and a year greater of a threat, there is no doubt that they will get a lot of touches on the ground. The difference between play action with Bush and White versus the Rebel runners, however, lies in how it’s used.
Kiffin used the run game as an establisher, meaning he ran the ball until the defense stepped up to stop it. When the defense keyed on the run, Kiffin went to the air. He also wasn’t afraid to throw the ball on early downs or get creative.
On the other hand, Rich Rodriguez seemed only to pass because he felt he had to, or when the situation required significant chunk yardage. Having two dynamic rushers in the backfield and a competent play-caller at the helm will be key components to the success of Plumlee or Matt Corral throwing the ball.
Both backs are weapons of the backfield.
To go with his ridiculous 7.3 yards per carry, Bush was college football’s best receiver who didn’t play receiver. In 2004 and 2005, Mr. President caught a combined 80 balls for 987 yards. Under the Matt Luke and Rodriguez regime, Ealy and Conner combined for 26 total catches, with the former getting the lion’s share of touches as a check down last season.
From 2006 to 2015, Bush ranked second among backs in the NFL with 466 catches for 3,489 yards. Low and behold, giving your best athlete the ball with room to maneuver was something that teams saw Kiffin do with Bush at USC and emulated with success on the next level.
Bush lined up split out in a five wide receiver set.
Here, Kiffin uses motion to create a mismatch and sets Bush in the slot. He blows by a linebacker and scores.
This play, which came against Virginia Tech immediately following the White play action discussed in the section above, lines Bush up as a tailback in a traditional ace formation. Leinart, a lefty, takes a drop and looks downfield. While the defense sells out for the deep ball, Leinart comes back across his body and dumps it off to Bush for an easy, untouched six points.
White caught the ball as a receiver less often than Bush, but he became a staple pass blocker and would break out into the flat as a check down when the defense brought a light rush.
Kiffin also was great about trust. In a situation where a play broke down and his players needed to break from the script to get open, that was okay. White was good at that.
Conner has been, and will continue to be, valuable in the pass blocking and flat route role. His speed and shiftiness may also make him more of a factor running true deep routes. No matter who it is, both Rebel backs will be heavily involved in the passing game.
Using his best athletes, often times the running back, in unique ways is what Kiffin does best. He isn’t afraid to be unconventional or stick to a script. If getting Ealy or Conner in space requires splitting them out wide, so be it. If the Big Uglies are getting significant push and opening gaping holes to run through, pound it up the middle. If the ends are crashing down and the sidelines are barren, break one to the outside.
Kiffin had great success with a backfield of Bush and White at USC in 2004 and 2005. He inherits an equally as athletic duo with Ealy and Conner at Ole Miss for 2020 and how the first-year head coach chooses to use them will likely resemble his Trojan tandem.
No matter how it shakes out, it will be fun. Someone just needs to teach Snoop to dance like LenDale because great teams don’t just cover, they taunt.