He could be down, way down. Curse the fates, his coaches, even his teammates. Feel crushed by disappointment, an unrealized dream, lost opportunity.

Hershel Dennis was here before Reggie Bush and LenDale White. Started ahead of them as a sophomore. Was dubbed the next great USC running back.

And now for most of the past two seasons, he has had to watch as Bush and White ran to greatness, as USC won two national titles and now take aim at a third.

Dennis was supposed to be in the middle of it all, not standing on the sidelines, not left an observer.

Yet there appears to be no bitterness with Dennis, no rage over providence.

"I don't feel like I'm missing out on anything," Dennis said. "Just letting them go out and do their thing. I'm still part of the team. If they're going to get a ring, I'm going to get a ring. I ain't got no problems with it.

"I started playing football when I was 6, and this is the first year I've missed a season, so that's a little burden on my shoulders. But I can't get down on myself."

Dennis was a star on the Long Beach Poly High team that captured the 2001 Southern Section Div. I championship. A Super Prep All-American. A tailback with explosive speed.

He played behind a trio of senior USC running backs as a freshman, but in his sophomore year was elevated to starter. He started every game, including the 2004 Rose Bowl victory over Michigan.

Yet early in that season the greatness of Bush and White became impossible to ignore. By season's end, both had gained more yards than Dennis, the starter.

"Hershel Dennis was my savior to football when I came here," White said. "I didn't know what was going on and he gave me the light, he gave me the key to open doors. He never once hesitated to give us what he had as far as football knowledge.

"When he had to step down and we took over as starters, he was always on the sidelines cheering us on. He would do whatever he had to do, to be there for us."

Prior to his junior season, Dennis was arrested for an alleged sexual assault of his ex-girlfriend. He was suspended for four weeks by coach Pete Carroll and returned to the team only after police decided not to press charges; officially, he was suspended for breaking curfew.

When he returned, White was the starter and Bush the backup. They became "Thunder and Lighting," a heralded and sensational duo. Dennis was all but forgotten. For the entire 2004 season, he rushed 28 times for 109 yards.

Then in practice prior to January's Orange Bowl over Oklahoma, he tore ligaments in his left knee. He had surgery and had to redshirt this 12-0 season by the Trojans. Had to stay home while the team traveled. Stand almost awkwardly on the sideline of home games at the sold-out Coliseum.

"Every time I watch a game, I want to hop out there and throw some pads on and get out on the field," he said. "But I'm a patient guy and patience is going to help me get through this. I get motivated every time I watch these guys play."

Dennis, who redshirted this season, continues to work out, to strengthen a knee he said is now 100 percent. Dennis said he is running at full speed, making cuts. He is expected to return to practice for 2006 spring camp.

"Hershel is a strong-minded guy," said USC running backs coach Todd McNair. "He has a great deal of mental toughness about him.

"He's just waiting for his opportunity to get back in there and do his thing. I think he's handled it all very well. He's on schedule. In spring ball he'll be ready to rock 'n' roll."

By then, the tailback position at USC may have changed dramatically. Bush is expected to leave after his junior season and take his Heisman to the NFL draft, likely as the No. 1 overall pick. White may join him.

There will no doubt be a next set of heralded freshmen running backs, all eager to be the next Reggie Bush, all dreaming of greatness.

They will find a veteran waiting for their challenge, left hungry by a long season of observance. Not someone enraged by seasons lost or threatened by the latest prep All-American.

"I ain't that type of guy," Dennis said. "I want the competition to come in and keep me on my toes, too. I want them to bring in the best so we can learn off each other."

White said should he return for his senior season, he and Dennis could do great things.

"If I'm still here, me and him could be the next thunder and lighting duo," White said. "It would be amazing.

"I'm pretty sure this has all been hard on him, but Hershel is such a great-spirited guy you never hear it. You'd never see him walking around with his head down. He smiles about everything."

And he works, and waits. Dennis suspects all the work on his legs to rehab his knee may make him even more explosive for his delayed senior season.

"I see it going well," he said. "I see it unfolding the way the story is supposed to unfold. Myself having a great season on a great football team and getting everything I deserve. The harder I work every day, the better for next season."

Steve Dilbeck's column appears in the Daily News four times a week. He can be reached at stephen.dilbeck@dailynews.com.