If two are company and three a crowd, then USC’s Erik Affholter has been involved in a virtual mob scene this season.
Affholter will never be identified as the Lonesome End, a nickname bestowed on Army All-American Bill Carpenter in the late 1950s.
When Affholter lines up at split end, rival defenses accord him special attention--and respect--with what amounts to triple coverage at times.
The objective for USC’s opponents is to take Affholter out of the offense, nullify him, surround him and force the Trojans to find other means to sustain drives.
All this attention to Affholter stems from his ability to catch a pass, regardless of where it is thrown--high, low or seemingly out of reach.
Despite concentrated coverage, Affholter, a 6-foot, 190-pound senior, is the Pacific 10’s second-leading receiver with 35 catches for 412 yards and 3 touchdowns. He has caught 90 passes in his USC career, leaving him 23 short of the school record of 113, held by Hank Norman.
Affholter is acclaimed at USC for making what is referred to as “the catch,” a juggling, 33-yard reception of a pass from quarterback Rodney Peete in the fourth quarter of last year’s game against UCLA that gave the Trojans a 17-13 upset victory.
In degree of difficulty, however, it was only a routine catch for Affholter.
Now, opponents are trying to throw a net over him.
“Teams have been rolling coverages to my side,” Affholter said. “There is a cornerback in my face to take away the out routes. Then a safety is rolled over the top to take away the deep and angle routes. There is also a linebacker running out to take away anything from the inside.”
It’s a grudging compliment to Affholter that the defense doesn’t rest when he’s in the game.
“I’d just as soon they didn’t do it,” he said, smiling. “It gets a little boring. And, at some point, they’re going to have to stop, because Rodney is too good a quarterback not to recognize what they’re doing.”
Affholter reasons that such intense coverage eventually causes problems for the defense, leaving flankers John Jackson and Gary Wellman in single coverage and opening up routes for tight end Scott Galbraith and a running back.
Still, Affholter perseveres. Of his 35 catches this season, 26 have resulted in first downs, 12 of them on third-down passes.
In addition to the tight surveillance from opponents, Affholter has had to play with assorted injuries.
It began in the Stanford game Sept. 10, when he suffered a concussion on USC’s first offensive play.
“I was pretty much out of it the whole game,” he said. “It was the worst game I ever had. I was just going through the motions.”
Then he sprained his right ankle against Oklahoma Sept. 24, before he broke the little finger on his right hand against Arizona Oct. 1.
Affholter shrugs off the injuries, saying that he’s operative now.
He has been compared in style to the Seattle Seahawks’ Steve Largent, who has a knack for getting open and even going deep at the opportune moment, although he does not have a sprinter’s speed.
Ray Dorr, USC’s wide receiver coach agrees, saying: “He is very much in the mold of a Largent-type receiver. The thing he has is a great field awareness of where people are when and after the ball is snapped.
“He’ll do whatever it takes to catch the football--if he has to dive, if he has to lay out, if he has to come into the middle--and his second effort is extraordinary.
“He has the greatest lateral quickness I’ve ever seen in a football player, even though he doesn’t have the greatest straightaway speed. He has the ability to divorce his upper and lower body, to get his upper body turned back toward the football, even if his legs are going in another direction. That’s what makes him so deceptive.
“He’s also a leader by example. He practices just like it’s a game. He makes your job easier as a coach.”
USC Coach Larry Smith sums up Affholter as simply the “most underrated player in America.”
Said Peete: “He just has unbelievable hands. If I just get it in his area, I know he’s going to come up with the catch. The main thing I have to do is give him a chance, because if you get it in his area, 9 times out of 10 he’s going to get the ball.”
Affholter and Peete work out together during the summer on campus, constantly refining their skills.
“We’ll go through every pattern we have three times on both sides of the field,” Affholter said. “I have a pretty good idea what he wants to do, and he knows what I’m going to do.
“When Rodney is back there scrambling during a game, I try to hide myself in the least likely spot. He’ll rarely throw the ball on his first move while scrambling and, eventually, he’ll come back your way and he’ll pick you out.”
Affholter and Peete are also occasional golf partners during the summer, and the quarterback has chided the split end for his reckless driving in a golf cart.
As for the game, Affholter said: “I beat him 95% of the time. But we team up together and play best ball when we’re playing against Wellman. He’s a scratch golfer.”
Best ball is what Affholter says the Trojans will need if they are to remain unbeaten and force a Rose Bowl showdown in the Nov. 19 game against UCLA.
“We’re the type of team that can’t have any letdown, whether it’s Oregon State or Cal,” he said. “We’re not good enough to just show up and win. We’ll have to be focused every week, or we’ll have problems.”
Affholter is recognized as the best athlete to come out of Oak Park High School in Agoura. He was more renowned for a 64-yard field goal, a prep record at the time.
He just wanted the opportunity, though, to play wide receiver when he came to USC.
“The first day of practice, I was given jersey No. 47, which is a little bit of everything as far as positions go,” Affholter said. “I asked Coach Ted Tollner at the time where I should go. He told me to go with the wide receivers, adding that he didn’t know where I was going to end up.”
Now he’s wearing No. 42 and, fortunately for USC, he has ended up at split end.
Center Brad Leggett escaped serious injury Tuesday when a car hit him while he was on his moped at a stop sign. “He was knocked straight up in the air and landed on his tail bone,” Coach Larry Smith said. “He was taken to a hospital and, fortunately, he didn’t break a bone or suffer a muscle tear. However, he’s very sore.”
Leggett practiced on a limited basis Tuesday and Wednesday and is expected to be in the starting lineup Saturday when USC plays Oregon State at Corvallis, Ore. . . . Prime Ticket will televise the game on a delayed basis starting at 3:30 p.m. Saturday, not 8 p.m. Sunday, as originally scheduled.