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SIDE BY SIDE : USC Defensive Backs Mark Carrier and Cleveland Colter Are Both Candidates for the Jim Thorpe Award

Times Staff Writer

As a safety tandem, USC’s Mark Carrier and Cleveland Colter work together as teammates.

In a sense, though, they are competing against one another. Both have been nominated for the Jim Thorpe Award, given to the nation’s best collegiate defensive back.

Their skills are so comparable that you can’t mention one without referring to the other. They are usually interviewed as an entry, as they were recently.

Carrier and Colter have been compared favorably to Ronnie Lott and Dennis Smith, USC’s stylish safeties of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, who are now National Football League stars.

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However, Carrier and Colter have established their own identities in a relatively short time.

Both became starters last season--Carrier at free safety as a redshirt freshman and Colter at strong safety as a sophomore--and quickly became impact players.

Carrier had 115 tackles, tops among returning players; 2 forced fumbles; 3 fumble recoveries, and 4 interceptions, 2 at the expense of UCLA’s Troy Aikman, the nation’s passing efficiency leader at the time.

Colter had a team-high 6 interceptions in 1987, including 3 against Stanford, USC’s opponent Saturday at Palo Alto. He returned one interception 94 yards for a touchdown against California. He also had 100 tackles and a team-high 13 pass deflections.

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“One pro scout told me recently that Carrier and Colter are so good, it’s hard to believe that they’re underclassmen,” said Bobby April, USC’s defensive backfield coach. “They both have great instincts for knowing where the ball is at all times.”

As for the competition between them, Colter said: “When we first got here, we were going against each other. Then the coaches sat us down and told us that we each have our own positions. We both settled down after they talked to us.

“We both make our share of plays. We just have to find a way to make the team win. I want a national championship.”

Said Carrier: “We’ve been asked about (competition) a lot this year. You know, what if it gets down to the Jim Thorpe finalists? Then, I said we’ll both be thinking about who has the most stats.”

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Awards aside, Carrier and Colter patrol different sides of the street.

“I call all the defensive signals and make sure everyone is in place,” Carrier said. “I’m the deep safety guy. If someone gets behind me, it is usually six points, as we saw in the Boston College game. (The Eagles scored their only touchdown on a 60-yard pass play.)

“I’m usually the second run support player and I usually line up on the short side of the field.”

Said Colter: “Our field is cut in half. Mark and a cornerback, Ernest Spears or Tracy Butts, are on one side and I’m on the other with another corner, Chris Hale.

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“I line up to the strength of the offensive formation and I’m usually keying on the tight end. It’s the two-receiver side of the field.”

That’s a simplified version. It’s more complicated than that with zone and man-to-man coverages and combinations of both.

Even though Carrier and Colter are indirectly competing for the Thorpe award, quarterback Rodney Peete attracts more attention as a candidate for the more prestigious Heisman Trophy.

Said Carrier: “Peete takes the pressure off us tremendously. He has all the reporters. We just go about our business and do our jobs.”

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Carrier, at 6 feet 1 inch and 180 pounds, is regarded as a jarring tackler. His nickname is Aircraft.

Colter, 6-1 and 195, is nicknamed Cadillac because, according to Carrier, he is always in cruise control.

Nothing seems to bother Colter, who is seemingly laid back off the field, but competitive on it. He is now returning punts and is looking forward to scoring his first touchdown in that assignment.

Joey Browner was the last Trojan to return a punt for a touchdown in a 1982 game against Indiana.

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Carrier apparently scored a touchdown on a 72-yard pass interception against UCLA last year, only to have it nullified by a clipping penalty. The culprit? Why, it was his pal, Colter.

“I looked at the film and all he did was trip over a big offensive lineman,” Carrier said.

Said Colter: “I was trying to get around him and I bumped into him. I didn’t know that they had thrown a flag on me and I was running to block someone else. I’ll spring him loose this year.”

Carrier has one more year of eligibility than Colter because he suffered a broken left foot before the 1986 season as a freshman, forcing him to red-shirt.

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A former high school All-American at Long Beach Poly, Carrier said he narrowed his choice of schools to USC and Notre Dame.

“After Lou Holtz came to my house, I knew I was going to Notre Dame,” Carrier said. “He’s very impressive and he had my mother’s head spinning. But I felt it was in my best interests to go to USC so my father could see the games.”

Carrier’s father, Willie, was paralyzed in a 1979 car accident and is now confined to a wheelchair.

“He flew to East Lansing for our opening game against Michigan State last year and developed a sore on his hip on the flight that laid him up practically the entire season,” Carrier said. “However, he was able to see our Rose Bowl game against Michigan State.”

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Unfortunately, for Willie, the Trojans lost both games.

Colter also was a prep All-American, at McClintock High School in Tempe, Ariz. There was considerable pressure on him to attend nearby Arizona State. But Colter was intent on enrolling at USC.

His father, Cleveland, a former high school football star in Arizona, died of a heart attack in 1976.

“I was 8 years old at the time and in my first year of Pop Warner football,” Colter said. “He used to come to all of my practices. Then one day I came home and he wasn’t there anymore.”

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Both Carrier and Colter were surprised at how easily USC disposed of Boston College, 34-7, in the opening game Sept. 1. They expected the Eagles to extend the Trojans, as they had last year, while losing, 23-17.

They’re aware, though, that the rest of the schedule is imposing, including a game Sept. 24 with Oklahoma at the Coliseum.

“You have to play a schedule like that to see if you’re one of the top teams in the country,” Carrier said. “Last year, we had to prove to ourselves that we were good. This year we know we’re good and we’re out to prove it to other teams.”

Trojan Notes

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USC Coach Larry Smith said Thursday that defensive tackle Tim Ryan, cornerback Dwayne Garner and linebacker Junior Seau, who missed the Boston College game with injuries, will play some against Stanford. He added that there is a possibility that tailback Steven Webster will play, too. Webster is rehabilitating satisfactorily from knee surgery last November, but hasn’t had much contact work. “I’d like to get him into the game to give him some live playing time,” Smith said. “He isn’t gimpy, but he needs to be tackled by an opponent to get that final mark of confidence.” . . . Offensive linemen Brent Parkinson and Mark Sager won’t make the trip. Parkinson is recovering from knee surgery and Sager has a groin injury.


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