LOS ANGELES — Tre Madden has been on both sides of the ball in his short career at Southern California. While he enjoyed his year as a linebacker for the Trojans, he loves his new role as their star tailback.
Even though taking hits isn't as easy as delivering them.
"I think (having) 11 guys coming after you is a little harder," Madden said with a grin. "Running back is a little more difficult."
USC (2-1) is grateful Madden isn't afraid of a challenge. In fact, the school long known as Tailback U. hasn't had a ball carrier who got off to such an impressive start since Marcus Allen was running away with the Heisman Trophy in 1981.
"It's hard to start much better than he has through three games," USC coach Lane Kiffin said.
After losing last season to major knee surgery and emerging from a tough competition this summer to become the Trojans' starter, Madden already has 362 yards rushing, averaging 5.5 yards per carry.
Allen was the last USC tailback to start a season with three straight 100-yard games before Madden did it this year, and he doesn't appear to be slowing down heading into Saturday's meeting with Utah State. Although Allen was with the Kansas City Chiefs by the time Madden was born, he knows his USC history.
"It's a great tradition we have here at running back, and just to be mentioned with the great guys we have like Marcus Allen, it's awesome to be mentioned like that," Madden said. "He averaged like 200 (yards) a game his first five, so I'm nowhere close to that, but that's amazing just to be mentioned with him."
Even with projected starter Silas Redd and fellow veteran D.J. Morgan sitting out with injuries, USC is overflowing with backfield talent again this fall. Madden is starting in front of sophomore Javorious Allen and freshmen Justin Davis and Ty Isaac, all heavily recruited ball carriers.
Not bad for a multi-positional Orange County high school product who spent his freshman season at USC as a linebacker and special teams player.
Also not bad for a guy who sat out all of last season after blowing out his knee in spring practice, just a few days after making the switch to offense and immediately showing promise. He fell to the ground without contact in April 2012, tearing a ligament in his left knee.
"We really thought when he went down before last year that that was a big deal," Kiffin said. "It wasn't a big deal nationally, because people didn't really know about him, but from what we had seen in practice already, he had shown to be an every-down running back and a really unique back. He's done a great job coming back from it."
Madden's defensive background gives him insight for his current position: He already loves to hit, and he knows where linebackers are likely to end up on most running plays. His high school quarterback experience also helps in reading the reactions of cornerbacks and safeties.
"I definitely see myself as a running back now," he said. "I'm getting comfortable with the position and just feeding off every other running back we have."
While the 17-year-old Davis has shown promising signs with 172 yards and two touchdowns while averaging 6.6 yards per carry, Madden has been Kiffin's workhorse. He carried the ball 32 times against Washington State earlier this month, but was happy when that number was halved to 16 in last week's win over Boston College.
Madden is eager, but not greedy.
He said he'll do "whatever the game calls for, but sharing carries — we have great running backs and getting fresh legs on all the carries is definitely more beneficial to this team."
Madden's emergence might not have happened without the extended injury absence of Redd, who hasn't played yet for the Trojans this year after tearing the meniscus in his left knee during spring ball.
The Penn State transfer led USC with 905 yards rushing and nine touchdowns last season, but Kiffin has been deliberately vague about Redd's injury, which required a recent visit to Dr. James Andrews. Redd has said he hopes to return each week, only to watch from the sidelines.
Morgan, a two-game starter in 2011, also hasn't practiced this season with his own knee injury.
In the meantime, Madden excels as a determined runner between the tackles, delivering a physical punch to opposing defenses. He cites the Houston Texans' Arian Foster as his favorite running back, identifying with the All-Pro's determined, one-cut running style.
Despite his outstanding start, Madden knows he could lose playing time when Redd returns, or when the coaches want to see more of Davis' smooth running style. Madden doesn't mind the challenge at all.
"It's a lot of talent here, and that's what we come to USC for, to compete," Madden said. "That's what we expect."