How strong do you have to be to be a RB in FBS? How tough must you be to attend a school that produced Heisman trophy award winners, OJ Simpson and Marcus Allen? If that wasn’t enough, how determined do you have to be to overcome an early injury, mid–career coaching change and sanctions that will prevent you from playing in possibly 2 bowl games?
Tough as nails, stubborn as an ox and as skilled as CJ Gable.
Gable sat with me after working out with his old team. Instead of wallowing in his own distraught from the lack of media recognition, or stewing in the uncertainty with the NFL labor talks, Gable continues to go to work. He continues to practice with his former team as they prepare for their Spring game.
“I’m training everyday”, he explained after both a field and weight workout, “keeping in shape…not trying to fall out of the system”.
And what a system it is.
He went from being the first freshman ever to start in the Trojans’ backfield (neither Bush, Simpson nor Allen accomplish this) to virtually being an unknown in just a few years.
This “system” has him as a project free agent, who will “fight for a roster spot”.
Gable doesn’t want to fall out of this system, but will not allow it to discourage him.
“I questioned myself a little. But when I focused on me, I quickly got out of that. I knew that I was the best and my work will speak for itself.”
Gable’s freshman campaign was magical. As a first-year freshman in 2006, he was spectacular as a tailback and kickoff returner. He started 5 games and was USC’s rushing leader in 4 of them. While appearing in all 13 games, he had 434 yards (3rd on the team), averaged 4 yards per carry with 4 TDs. He added 9 receptions for 90 yards and averaged 27 yards per kickoff return. He was second in Pac-10 in kickoff return yardage. He made 2006 Rivals.com Freshman All-American second team (as a kickoff returner), The Sporting News Freshman All-American honorable mention (as a tailback and kickoff returner), All-Pac-10 honorable mention (as a kickoff returner) and The Sporting News Pac-10 All-Freshman first team (as a tailback and kickoff returner).
He continued racking up fantastic numbers (11 yards per carry) until the 3rd game of the 2007 season where he was forced to have season-ending surgery on a strained abdomen.
“Man, it was hard”, Gable reminisces about the injury, “”I’m a competitor…
I did what I had to do to get back on the field.”
And Gable roared back in 2008. He started 11 games, rushed for over 600 yards, while averaging 6 yards per carry. He had 10 total TDs – 8 rushing, 1 receiving and another one on a 93 yard kickoff return.
After such a successful ’08 campaign, the 2009 season was a trying one. In his junior year, Gable was amidst an extremely talented and equally crowded backfield.
The 2009 season also marked the end of a coaching era when Pete Carroll left USC for the NFL. He had always kept a crowded, yet talented backfield and spread the carries around. The result was a system that did not feature or illuminate one single back, while at the same time, not fully utilizing the backfield’s explosive potential.
CJ Gable was amongst this frustrating system. Instead of accepting this frustration and allowing it to affect his play, he chose to learn from it:
“All the tailbacks knew we could have gone to any school and been the main guy. But we came here to be part of a winning team. It makes it worth it when you win Pac-10 titles and go to the Rose Bowl all the time. We all contributed. Everybody put in his part.”
His role was diminished and saw limited action, but still manage to average 4 yards per carry, while leading all USC players with 18 yards per kickoff return.
The 2010 season looked much like the prior. He got less looks, carries and attention, but decided to take a very professional approach to it:
“It was rough….not as much playing time as I wanted….instead of complaining about it, I ¬went hard because I didn’t know when I was gonna get another chance.”
He went hard every play. After having a team-high 13 carries for 72 yards deep into the fourth quarter in the game against Cal, Gable went down on what was considered a season sending knee injury.
“I was getting my opportunity to get out there, and then that happened. I was determined to not let it keep me down.”
His character was noted by head coach Lane Kiffin, “what a great kid,” Kiffin said, “he walked by and said, ‘Coach, I’m sorry I didn’t finish today’… that says a lot about what kind of person he is.”.
He is the determined and hard-working kind of person.
At what was once considered a season ending injury, Gable endured and fought back to appear in the Oregon game the next week, and for every game the rest of the season.
The season and Gable’s USC career ended rather quietly. For someone whom Scout.com toted as, “Carroll’s Diamond in the Rough”, his prolonged underuse made him a virtual unknown.
Supremely skilled as a dynamic running back with reliable hands and an explosive kickoff returner, Gable had a solid performance at his Pro Day.
“I gave my all”, he explains, “I felt great and performed well all around. The 1-on-1 with the coaches was great and I caught everything they threw at me.”.
Gable professionally took all his trials and setbacks and really learned from them. A new coaching staff provided more challenging expectations, which he picked up immediately.
“The system demanded more details and better execution. My RB coach taught me how to read the play, rather than just go through holes…to know our escape routes and what our linemen are doing…to know everything before going out there.”
Through the new USC coaching regime, Gable learned what he needed to improve both on the field and in the classroom.
“I’m better at reading plays…when to cut back and when to use other moves and when to hit the hole. I can read defenses now. There are more tempo in my runs and I can set up my runs and my blocks.”
Gable’s overall journey has prepared him for the NFL. He enjoyed an outstanding freshman season, suffered a crushing injury, accepted a reduced role, adjusted to a new coaching staff and is currently experiencing little to no press. As he once was referred to as “The People’s Choice” and had the USC faithful chanting his name, Gable has taken being “under the radar” quite well.
He shrugs off the notion of being snubbed by the media and noted that, “there are lots of RBs that can do a lot, but get no press.”
This lack of press will in no doubt, allow Gable to be the Steal of the Draft. An NFL team will get a fast (4.5), shifty RB that will find holes and make guys miss. He has exceptional hands and is very experienced in catching the ball. He can contribute in the return game, as he is an explosive kick returner who will always find daylight (averaged 21.5 yards per kickoff return while at USC).
If it’s his skills at a variety of positions that will land him on a NFL roster, his determination and work ethic will get his last name printed on a back of a jersey. He put on over 10lbs of solid muscle from his freshman year, while still maintaining his speed. He used this extra strength to do what he loves the best, blocking.
As most RBs dread pass blocking, Gable embraces it, “I love going against bigger guys and hitting them in the mouth! I love hitting; during practice I go up against defensive linemen. I love the contact and competition.”.
If CJ Gable’s name is not in a many circles as it should be, it doesn’t faze him one bit. “I don’t care what people say, I’m gonna do what I gotta do to get there and stay there, because an NFL team that signs me will get a determined player that’s not gonna back down and will fight and compete”.
The secret will be out soon enough.