With each passing day, as the two restless running backs rehabbed alongside each other, Vavae Malepeai and Stephen Carr would wonder aloud when the other might return to a USC backfield riddled by injury.
And when they did return, what it might mean for electrifying freshman Kenan Christon.
On Tuesday, all three got their answers. Malepeai and Carr, who’d been the Trojans’ top two backs at the start of the season, returned to practice. Neither is guaranteed to play against California on Saturday but both appear to be trending in that direction.
“It was really positive,” coach Clay Helton said of their return. “There were no setbacks. They looked explosive, but we have to see. Is there no flare-up after practice? How sore are they? We’ll go through the week. But it was positive today.”
For Malepeai, it has been nearly a month since knee surgery, done with the hope of reducing the pain and swelling that has lingered since training camp. For Carr, it was a hamstring injury that kept him out the last three games.
Whether those reinforcements in the running game come this week, they’ll be joined no matter what by Christon, who, after an impressive month, will play out the rest of his freshman season, relinquishing his ability to redshirt.
That decision was made official this week after Christon turned in another standout game against Arizona State, touching the ball a career-high 24 times and racking up 144 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns.
It was enough to convince the running backs Christon replaced that a redshirt would be the wrong move.
“He had an opportunity and he ran with it,” Malepeai said. “At the beginning of the season, he looked like he was going to redshirt. After what he’s done on the field, there’s no way you can redshirt someone like that.”
Running backs coach Mike Jinks said he was convinced a week earlier that Christon deserved to play the rest of the season. But as the 185-pound Christon handled his heaviest workload yet, his performance also proved how much he might benefit from more backs in the fold.
“He was a different player in the second half, and we knew that would probably be the case,” Jinks said of Christon. “Getting those guys back, he’ll be fresher in the second half. Maybe he’ll still be able to do those things, but as the game went on, and the kid got up to 15-16 touches and had to take on protections, we had to take him out for three series. He just couldn’t go anymore.”
When Carr and Malepeai return, the trio is expected to settle into a rotation that more closely resembles what USC did earlier, when Markese Stepp was the third back in that rotation. Helton said that he and Jinks assured him Christon he would have a role.
Christon, who initially planned to redshirt this season, happily obliged.
“He’s going to see productive time,” Helton said. “He really is. That was our commitment to him. He’s been such a great player these last four games. He’s really created a great spark for us.”
After a relatively smooth season up front, USC must confront a shake-up to its starting offensive line.
Brett Neilon, who left Saturday’s game early, will be out several weeks because of a calf strain, Helton said. In his place, USC will have to rely on redshirt freshman Justin Dedich, who lost the training-camp battle at the position.
“It wasn’t even a blink of an eye last week,” Helton said of Dedich, who took over in the third quarter against Arizona State. “There was just no panic amongst our staff. We knew he was ready. He goes out there and there was no lack of production. That’s the type of player he is.”
Right guard Jalen McKenzie, who played some center in high school, took snaps Tuesday as the emergency option at the position.
Wideout Tyler Vaughns was limited at practice because of a sprained ankle. His status for Saturday remains uncertain. ... Defensive tackle Marlon Tuipulotu and linebacker Palaie Gaoteote returned to practice after sitting out the last game because of injuries. ... Freshman wideout Kyle Ford will play one more game before being shut down to maintain his redshirt.