His speed was hardly a secret. Everyone at USC knew the freshman was the fastest guy on the team and probably the fastest running back in the Pac-12.
When it came to Kenan Christon, the question for USC’s coaches was never if he could sprint past would-be tacklers, but rather how he might hold up running into them.
As a senior at San Diego Madison High School, Christon clocked the third-fastest 100-meter time in state history, and that breakaway speed showed up on Day 1 at USC. But he was just 185 pounds, with a slight, sprinter’s frame, and the Trojans had the luxury of a stacked backfield. They planned to bring Christon along slowly.
Those plans changed in a matter of plays. Stephen Carr and Markese Stepp both left with ankle injuries last Saturday, leaving USC, which already lost Vavae Malepeai to knee surgery, down its top three running backs. Quincy Jountti, a walk-on, fumbled on his first carry. An hour or so — and two touchdowns — later, Christon was the toast of the Coliseum.
On Friday, as USC (4-3 overall, 3-1 in the Pac-12) heads to Colorado for a matchup with the struggling Buffaloes (3-4, 1-3), the freshman speedster will be one of many USC backups thrust into a leading role out of necessity. The Trojans are as beat-up as they’ve been all season, with three running backs, two defensive ends, a linebacker and a standout safety set to miss the game.
And while coaches have claimed they won’t alter their plans, the strengths and weaknesses of their dwindling depth may force their hand.
“We have to find a way to put everyone in position to be successful and do what’s best for them,” offensive coordinator Graham Harrell said.
For Christon, that means finding ways to use his speed in space. It also means protecting him, if the Trojans can, by not asking him to masquerade as a power back.
“He’s going to have to have some physical runs,” Harrell said. “Obviously, he’s fast, especially with the ball. But what I didn’t know is how physical he would be, how tough he would be, and how he wanted to run between the tackles.”
Harrell and running backs coach Mike Jinks are still skeptical that Christon can handle a substantial workload just yet. Jountti is expected to remain the primary power back on Friday, and Dominic Davis, who switched back to running back from cornerback, could get a few carries.
“You have to be creative in what you do from a schematic standpoint,” Jinks said of integrating Christon.
However he’s used, the freshman will play a huge role, out of necessity as much as opportunity.
“Kenan is going to have to handle a lot,” Harrell said. “He’s still young and doesn’t weigh a ton. We have to keep him healthy. But when you’re limited like that, you have to go until you can’t go.”
The same could be said for USC’s defense, which had its best pass rush of the season last week against Arizona, despite losing a few of its top players to injury.
Again, this week, the Trojans will have to rely on reserve defensive ends Caleb Tremblay and Connor Murphy to fill in for Drake Jackson and Christian Rector. Linebacker Kana’i Mauga will also step back into a significant role, after leading the team in tackles and adding a sack, a forced fumble and an interception last week.
Mauga said this week that he’d even surprised himself with his performance filling in for Palaie Gaoteote IV.
“It just goes to prove that anyone can step up and make things happen,” Mauga said.
With a decimated depth chart, an undersized running back and a defense relying on rotation players, USC is sure hoping that’s the case. The Trojans probably can’t afford another loss this season as they cling to their South Division tiebreaker advantage over a Utah team looking stronger by the week.
That means winning on the road, where USC has lost seven of its last nine going back to last season.
“We have to start faster as a team,” linebacker Hunter Echols said. “We just need to start faster when we’re away. We need to bring that energy, and we need to bring it for ourselves.”