Early last Saturday, before USC was forced to abandon its run game altogether, Kenan Christon took an inside handoff in the red zone, hit the hole and immediately ran into an Oregon defender’s outstretched arm.
There was never any mistaking the diminutive freshman for a bruising power back. But in that moment, as Christon was taken down, the limitations of an offense with only the 185-pound freshman available in the run game were abundantly clear to USC’s coaches.
“Maybe one of those bigger guys would’ve run through that arm tackle,’” running backs coach Mike Jinks said Tuesday. “But again, that’s part of it. He picked up all his blitzes. He got thrown all over the field. His job that day was to get run over slowly, and he did a dang good job of it. Really, he impressed the heck out of me.”
Christon carried the ball a season-high 15 times for 79 yards against Oregon. That workload was nearly identical to the one he’d received against Colorado a week earlier (14 for 76).
In three games this season, Christon is averaging nearly seven yards per carry, and coaches have continually praised his toughness. But against the Ducks, the lack of bigger options was more of a noticeable issue, offensive coordinator Graham Harrell acknowledged.
“We’re obviously limited there, just depth-wise,” Harrell said. “Kenan is a special player, and he has a different skill set. But again, he’s a true freshman too. He sees some things for the first time and might make some mistakes, but he’s also made some big plays. At the end of the day, he can’t carry it 30 times. One, he’s a true freshman, and two, he’s pretty light.”
Still, out of necessity, Christon is likely to carry the load for at least one more week in USC’s backfield. Coach Clay Helton said that probably would mean another game with fewer than 20 touches. But as USC tries to better establish the run, it’s uncertain who outside of former walk-on Quincy Jountti, who boasts nine carries in three games, might share that backfield burden.
Junior Stephen Carr did some minor work running on the field Tuesday and could return Saturday against Arizona State. But after missing the last two weeks with a hamstring injury, Carr is more likely to come back next week. Vavae Malepeai, who had knee surgery less than a month, may also have a chance to return then.
If both are back, USC will have a decision to make regarding Christon. The Arizona State game would be Christon’s fourth this season, meaning he would still be eligible to redshirt, assuming he doesn’t participate again in 2019.
When asked if Christon could be shut down after this week in order to redshirt, Helton left the door open.
“We’re going to see where we are with the other two backs,” Helton said. “It’d be great to get Stephen Carr back, see where Vavae is, and to be able to save it.”
Jackson, Hufanga return
A decimated USC defense may get two of its most important defenders back from injury this week.
End Drake Jackson (ankle) and safety Talanoa Hufanga (shoulder) were both back at practice, after each missed the last two games. Helton expressed hope that both might return against Arizona State, but added that they would be evaluated later in the week.
Hufanga was still limited Tuesday, while Jackson is “not 100%, but he’s working to get that way this week,” Helton said.
Jackson leads USC in sacks (3.5) and Hufanga ranks second in tackles (51).
President at practice
New university President Carol L. Folt and Rick Caruso, the chairman of USC’s board of trustees, were both at practice during the portion that was open to the media.
Helton, who stopped before practice to shake hands with both, said Folt was the first one to greet him in the locker room after the 56-24 loss to Oregon.
“Her support and Mr. Caruso’s support has always been there,” Helton said. “I’m appreciative. That’s one of the great things about being a part of the Trojan family. Obviously, this is a production-based business, and you want wins, but those people have always been great to me.”