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Everybody in college football seems to be enraptured with the squadron of heralded tailbacks assembled at glamorous and top-ranked USC. Nine marquee players, every one of them on scholarship and a former high school All-American, all fighting for the same opportunities to carry the ball for one of the most prestigious programs in the country.

Yet Stanley Havili stands in front of all of them.

In fact, the former two-time all-state star from Cottonwood High School might be even more important to the No. 1 Trojans' dream of winning their third national championship in five years than any of the flash-and-dazzle poster boys who line up behind him.

After all, he's the fullback who blocks for them - never mind catches passes out of the backfield, protects quarterback John David Booty from blitzes and has earned his share of carries as the Trojans approach their first test of the season at No. 14 Nebraska on Saturday.

"He adds a whole other dimension to our offense," Booty said.

It was a dimension the Trojans lacked last season, when Havili - then, just a true freshman only months removed from an intense recruiting battle - broke his leg while making the first start of his career and had to watch from the sidelines as his teammates finished an 11-2 season. That would have been a triumph for almost anybody except the Trojans, whose championship hopes were derailed by losses to Oregon State and UCLA.

But now, with Havili healthy again and coach Pete Carroll armed with all of those tailbacks and 18 returning starters - the most during his six-year tenure - the Trojans again have their eyes on a championship, even if they are loathe to talk much about it just yet.

"That's probably in the back of our heads," Havili acknowledged. "But it's not really what we think about, because we go game by game. . . . You can't get to the national championship without playing the game in front of you. So looking ahead doesn't do you any good."

Nobody knows that better than Havili.

He was just starting to emerge last season, making his first start against Arizona after playing on special teams in USC's first two games against Arkansas and Nebraska - both blowout victories that moved the Trojans to No. 3 in the national rankings. But after catching four passes against the Wildcats, he suffered that broken leg that ended his season and forced him to redshirt.

"I was down for a little bit," he recalled. "A good two weeks. I wasn't really doing anything, I was feeling sorry for myself . . . I wasn't doing my thing in school. I was feeling down. But after I realized what I could do if I kept my head up - that I had the opportunity to play coming into the next season - that kept me pushing forward."

At the time, Havili hoped he could return to the field by the end of the season. But that didn't work out. "I wasn't ready at all," he said. "Like, I guess I could have played, but it's smart that I didn't."

Indeed, the Trojans might have ruined one of the most integral pieces of their puzzle for this season.

Coaches and teammates agree that Havili might be the most important addition to the offense - tailbacks be damned - after the Trojans strained to run the ball last year amid injuries in their backfield. They averaged just 128 rushing yards per game, down by nearly half of what they gained the previous season when they had running backs Reggie Bush and LenDale White, and fewer than both Brigham Young and Utah - never mind 65 other teams around the country.

"You can see what happened to our offense last year, when we had some fullbacks go out," Booty said. "It totally changes our game plan and what we're trying to do."

The Trojans are hoping to do more against the Cornhuskers than they did in their season-opening 38-10 home victory over Idaho nearly two weeks ago, when Havili scored his first touchdown on a short pass from Booty and provided highlight material when he hurdled a diving Vandal defender.

And that's where Havili enters the picture.

"We can line him up all over the field," said offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, the former Cougar quarterback who recruited Havili to USC. "He's able to do that and he understands what we're trying to do. So he's really a triple threat for us, at a position we like to have a triple threat at. The ability to catch, run and block is huge."

Of course, the Trojans were not the only ones who knew that.

The Cougars desperately wanted Havili, too, after watching him gain 2,652 all-purpose yards and score 32 touchdowns as a senior for the Colts two years ago in a role that he said remarkably resembled his current duties as a fullback.

But after Carroll visited Havili at home and ate dinner with his family, Havili put aside his plans to serve an LDS Church mission and famously donned a USC cap during a local television sports program to announce his decision to join the Trojans.

"It has been an awesome experience," he said. "To play in the Coliseum, play with so many great athletes . . . it's very humbling, coming out here."

Very promising, too.

Carroll said Havili is "only going to expand his role by the fact that he can do so many things so easily," which puts the 19-year-old in a position to enjoy one of the most productive careers he could imagine.

And while shouldering so many expectations to act as a fulcrum of the offense might seem like a burden, Havili has embraced it the same way he has embraced the less glamorous fullback role that has kept him from posing for magazine covers with all of those preening tailbacks.

"That's why I came here, to play on this stage," he said. "Coming here, you expect that weight to be put on your shoulders. If you carry it, you'll be a good player. If you don't, you won't."

* He caught five passes for 22 yards and a touchdown against Idaho.

* A fullback, he had just one rush for 10 yards.


Breakout season

Stanley Havili's first game this year at USC

No. 1 USC at No. 14 Nebraska SATURDAY, 6 p.m., Ch. 4