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He Has Firm Grip on Opportunity

Carlson, the former walk-on, has again emerged as the most reliable punt returner for fifth-ranked USC.

October 16, 2003|Gary Klein | Times Staff Writer

Greig Carlson might be USC's most sure-handed player, but the former walk-on fumbles for words when asked to recount how he became the Trojans' top punt-return specialist.

"There's a phrase I can never remember," Carlson said. "When opportunity strikes? If opportunity presents itself?

"I don't know. The basic message is, if you get a chance, just make the play."

Carlson, a 5-foot-10, 195-pound redshirt sophomore, has made steady, if mostly unspectacular, plays since fielding his first punt for USC in the third game last season.

Carlson averaged only 6.6 yards for 27 returns in 2002, but he is averaging 12.5 yards for eight returns this season.

"I don't care how big guys are and I don't care if they're running at me," he said. "I have a mind-set that I'm going to catch the ball and put it away. If I can get a yard, I'm going to get a yard. If I can get 10, I'll take whatever you're going to give me."

USC coaches have experimented with faster and flashier players in the punt-return role, but none proved as reliable as Carlson, who played at Woodland Hills Taft and Palisades high schools.

Two weeks ago against Arizona State, speedy sophomore Justin Wyatt misplayed a second-quarter punt that pinned the Trojans at the three-yard line. Two series later, Coach Pete Carroll summoned Carlson, who averaged 16.5 yards for four returns.

After the 37-17 victory over the Sun Devils, Carroll said he was done experimenting for a while.

"It just feels better with him back there," Carroll said of Carlson. "I told him as we were leaving the field, 'Man, you're in.' "

Carlson will be first up Saturday when the fifth-ranked Trojans play Notre Dame at South Bend, Ind. USC has not won at Notre Dame Stadium since 1997, the Trojans' only victory there since 1981.

"I've gone through Kansas State and the Orange Bowl [game], and those were both pretty intimidating places," Carlson said. "I've heard Notre Dame's stadium can be pretty intimidating, but I think I'll be fine."

Steve Sarkisian, who coaches quarterbacks and punt returners, said Carlson has thrived by keeping it simple.

"He consistently catches the ball," Sarkisian said. "Getting the offense the ball is the first job of the punt-return team. Anything else we do is gravy."

Carlson did not have a specific role in mind when he decided to walk on at USC in the fall of 2001.

He caught 66 passes as a receiver for Palisades during his senior season and averaged 20.9 yards per catch. He also played defensive back and returned two punts and two kickoffs for touchdowns.

In his final high school game, Carlson was pressed into service at quarterback without having taken a snap in practice or a game. He passed for 260 yards and three touchdowns and also ran for two scores.

Carlson said he did not pursue offers to play receiver at smaller schools out of state because he wanted to stay close to his mother and younger brother.

"When I first got here, my biggest concern was trying to get the respect of my teammates and the coaches," he said. "From that point I was trying to find a spot somewhere. The next step was to travel and to play, and obviously, the ultimate goal was get a scholarship."

Carlson practiced as a receiver on the scout team while redshirting in 2001.

He emerged as an option for punt-return duties last season when Kevin Arbet suffered a season-ending foot injury.

Carlson backed up Kareem Kelly during the first two games, but the Trojans quashed his first opportunity when they blocked a punt against Colorado.

The next week at Kansas State, Kelly let a ball roll deep into Trojan territory before returning it 19 yards.

Carlson was summoned the next time the Wildcats punted. With a sellout crowd of more than 49,000 screaming at him, Carlson waited at the Trojan 11-yard line.

"I caught the ball and I got clothes-lined," Carlson said. "It was 'Welcome to Division I.' But it was fun."

Carlson showed he was more than strictly a punt catcher when he returned a kick 28 yards in the Trojans' 44-13 rout of Notre Dame. He capped the season with a 41-yard return against Iowa in the Orange Bowl.

"I panicked, ran the wrong way and got tackled," he said. "If I had just kept following my blockers, I probably would have scored. It was weird having all that running room."

Carroll recognized Carlson's contribution to the Trojans' success last season by awarding him a scholarship during a team meeting at the end of spring practice.

"Everybody went crazy," Carlson said. "That was pretty cool."

Carlson said he spent the summer watching film and improving his speed and his moves.

When he returned for training camp in August, Carroll announced that Arbet would return punts and that freshman Reggie Bush and Wyatt would also compete for the spot.

Arbet lasted two games before undergoing season-ending foot surgery for the second year in a row. Carlson did not return punts against Hawaii but had a five-yard return against California.

When Wyatt faltered against Arizona State, Carlson got the call.

Again.

"I don't know if they're going to try other guys at some point, but if they do, that's OK," Carlson said. "It all comes down to making the play, and I'm always ready to do that."

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