USC’s coaches thought Texas had sniffed out their play call on the Trojans’ final drive of regulation on Saturday. The plan was for Sam Darnold to throw a pass up the middle of the field to Velus Jones Jr., a slot receiver that USC had lined up as a running back in hopes of a favorable matchup.
The Longhorns anticipated the mismatch and called a timeout. So USC countered … by doing almost nothing. The Trojans stuck with the same play with one small tweak. Instead of using Jones, USC sent in freshman running back Stephen Carr.
The Longhorns took the hook. They didn’t view Carr as the same receiving threat as Jones. They were wrong.
Carr’s 21-yard reception was one of the game’s most crucial, and Carr’s effortless catch reminded his teammates of one former player in particular.
“Reggie Bush, honestly,” safety Marvell Tell III said. “Reggie would go out and play X or Z and do the same things.”
Carr has exhibited explosive production in the running game, but he may be most valuable as a pass catcher in a season where USC is struggling to find reliable receivers.
In limited time, Carr has emerged as perhaps USC’s third-best receiving option, behind Deontay Burnett and Steven Mitchell Jr. Carr is fourth on the team in catches, with seven, and in yards, with 83.
“That’s what makes him special,” coach Clay Helton said.
“It’s just a natural gift that he has,” offensive coordinator Tee Martin said. “It was one thing that I sold to him in recruiting was that we’re going to add some things for you, going back to 2014 with Buck Allen having 41 catches in a season, over 500 yards receiving as a running back. He has that type of talent if not more. So we’re going to continue giving him the ball that way.”
The Trojans have struggled to find a third option at receiver. USC likes starter Jalen Greene as a blocker, but he has caught just four passes for 56 yards. Joseph Lewis IV and Tyler Vaughns have not cracked the regular rotation.
So might Carr be an option to split out wide, just as USC did for Bush years ago?
“Not necessarily,” Martin said. “We run our offense with him. There are some things that we can do that opens up his package a little bit differently.”
Carr said he has always felt at ease running routes.
“I feel oh so comfortable, man,” he said. “That’s just something I love to do.”
He began playing in seven-on-seven leagues as an eighth grader. Usually, running backs in seven-on-seven are the pinkie toes of the offense: useful, but just barely. Carr made himself a force by refining his receiving ability.
As a freshman at Fontana Summit, Carr often split out in the slot. He worked on his hands and route running constantly. Most of his friends, he explained, were receivers. So he’d work out with them.
But he did not think of the similarities to Bush until he heard it from Tell.
“That’s a dope comparison,” he said.
After Tuesday’s practice, Helton huddled the team and spoke of “injury after injury after injury.” Which was, in fact, omitting several injuries.
USC practiced without defensive end Rasheem Green (high ankle sprain), safety Ajene Harris (knee hyperextension), linebacker Porter Gustin (broken big toe and biceps strain) and receivers Lewis (chest strain) and Mitchell (groin). Linebackers John Houston Jr. (neck) and Uchenna Nwosu (sprained knee and elbow hyperextension) and running back Ronald Jones II (thigh contusion) were also very limited.
Were all the injuries enough to be concerned about?
“If it was a year ago I’d be really worried right now,” Helton said.
But he said the Trojans’ depth has held them over. To his team, he singled out lineman Christian Rector. Rector is a reserve but played significant minutes at three different positions against Texas, and he was responsible for the forced fumble in double overtime that helped USC win the game. Helton said his team had enough similar players to tread water until the starters healed.
“Now, if we have a couple more injuries in this game, now I’m gonna get worried,” Helton said.
USC did get a trickle of positive health news. Defensive tackle Marlon Tuipulotu returned from a knee sprain and right tackle Chuma Edoga’s wrist sprain had improved.
Pac-12 Conference teams have played only two nonconference games against teams currently in the Associated Press top 25. Both were against No. 22 San Diego State, scheduled by Arizona State and Stanford. Both were losses.
Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand
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