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USC Sports

Column: USC’s Kenan Christon puts on electric performance in win against Arizona

USC running back Kenan Christon (23) celebrates on the sideline after scoring a touchdown against Arizona in the fourth quarter Saturday night at the Coliseum.
USC running back Kenan Christon (23) celebrates on the sideline after scoring a touchdown against Arizona in the fourth quarter Saturday night at the Coliseum.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Go far enough down the depth chart and you never know what you’ll find.

Like a player faster than Reggie Bush.

As the body count mounted in USC’s 41-14 victory over Arizona, coach Clay Helton was forced to play his fifth-string running back Saturday night. In doing so, Helton might have unveiled USC’s next superstar.

Who could have guessed the California high school champion last year at 100 and 200 meters would be fast?

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Only Kenan Christon was more than fast in his first college game.

He was electric. He was breathtaking. And as much as you hate to burden an 18-year-old true freshman with expectations, he scored the kinds of touchdowns that were last scored in the Coliseum by another running back from San Diego.

Yeah, Bush.

In less than two quarters, Christon rushed for 103 yards in eight carries. He scored a couple of exhilarating touchdowns, one from 55 yards and another from 30.

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The instant Christon reached the line of scrimmage on the 55-yard scoring run, running backs coach Mike Jinks said to Helton, “Touchdown.”

“He was right,” Helton said, “because the angle that both the safety and the corner took, you could tell it wasn’t going to happen, they weren’t going to catch him.”

Helton added: “He’s even, he’s leavin’.”

But Christon played only because misfortune struck the players in front of him. Following a loss to Notre Dame last week, Helton announced leading rusher Vavae Malepeai would undergo knee surgery. In the second quarter against Arizona, Stephen Carr strained a hamstring. In the third, Markese Stepp sprained his ankle.

Next up was Quincy Jountti, a former walk-on who received a scholarship this fall. Jountti lost a fumble on his first carry, prompting Helton to turn to Christon.

On the team, Christon’s talent wasn’t a secret.

“He’s just different,” quarterback Kedon Slovis said.

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And when did Slovis realize that?

“The first day of practice,” he said.

Last year, as a senior at Madison High in San Diego, Christon won the 100- and 200-meter races at the California track and field championships. He clocked 10.30 seconds in the 100, which tied him for third all-time in state history.

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Before that meet, Christon tattooed wings on the outer parts of his lower legs.

“They keep me light on my feet,” said Christon, who is listed at 5-foot-10 and 185 pounds.

A degree of temerity is required for a person to tattoo wings on his or her legs. Christon obviously has it.

Asked if there was anyone on the team faster than him, Christon replied, “Nope.”

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Told that receiver Velus Jones acknowledged Christon was faster than him, Christon replied, “He knows now. He has to.”

But Christon acknowledged that confidence was shaken because of his place on the depth chart.

“It was a little tough,” he said. “Kind of broke my spirit at first.”

A conversation with Malepeai after training camp changed that.

“He just sat me down and talked to me for a little bit,” Christon said. “We just had a deep talk about the process that he went through, behind all the guys he was behind and now he’s a starter. It got to me on the inside. I felt what he was saying.”

So Christon waited.

With Malepeai down this week, Jinks told Christon to be ready. Was he ever.

“I always knew I had it in me,” Christon said. “I knew I was ready to go from when I got here.”

Christon scored on only his fifth touch.

“You see him in practice do it time and time again,” Slovis said. “But for him to do it out here and against live defenders, it was great.”

What became clear over the second half on Saturday was that Christon deserves to play, regardless of the health statuses of the other running backs. If anything, he should have played sooner.

Christon could redshirt this season if he plays in four or fewer games, but circumstances could compel Helton to use him more than he initially planned.

With its depleted defensive backfield already dealing with injuries to all three of its starting cornerbacks, USC may have also lost its top safety Saturday night.

USC visits Colorado on Friday.

“With losing Vavae this week and then losing two more backs this week, I would imagine Kenan is going to have a pretty big role going into Colorado, as well as Quincy Jountti,” Helton said.

Helton sounded certain Christon wouldn’t be negatively affected by his newfound attention.

“In the recruiting process of Kenan, he was a definition of not only a student-athlete, but what you wanted a Trojan to be from a person,” Helton said. “There’s trained and untrained, and this one’s been trained the right way.”

The soft-spoken Christon downplayed his individual accomplishments.

“I’m just happy that we won,” he said.

Christon didn’t smile, not in the interview room or in a separate question-and-answer session outside of the USC locker room.

Of the inevitable comparisons to Bush, he said, “I try not to think about it too much because it’s easy to get overwhelmed being in college football.”

But Christon never appeared overwhelmed Saturday. The players who did were the ones trying to catch him. This shouldn’t be the last time.


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