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USC's seniors stuck together and found a purpose

Given the opportunity to transfer when the Trojans were punished by the NCAA last year, most of the upperclassmen stayed put. And now that group has helped USC become a top-10 team again.

November 24, 2011|By Gary Klein
  • USC receiver Brandon Carswell looks for room to run after making a reception against Syracuse cornerback Kevyn Scott earlier this season.
USC receiver Brandon Carswell looks for room to run after making a reception… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)

Brandon Carswell was gone. Checked out. Ready to fly.

The NCAA sanctions handed down against USC last year included an escape clause. Trojans juniors and seniors could transfer at any time and play immediately at new schools.

New USC Coach Lane Kiffin called it free agency.

Carswell, a seldom-used receiver, sensed opportunity. So a plane ticket to Cincinnati was purchased. A fresh start with a new program awaited.

But then his phone buzzed. Kiffin asked him to stay.

"He told me I was needed," Carswell says.

The plea gave him pause. Made him think. He called his parents one last time to talk it over. They had always wanted him to stay.

Carswell changed his mind. He's glad that he did.

USC plays UCLA on Saturday night at the Coliseum. The Trojans could finish with a 10-win season.

Kiffin often sings the praises of young players. Many start or play significant roles. But seniors such as Carswell, the Trojans' No. 3 receiver, have proven invaluable.

"We'd be lost without them," Kiffin says.

Some never considered exiting. Others did not succumb to the lure of a new beginning.

They still said goodbyes to teammates.

Defensive end Malik Jackson left for Tennessee. Running back D.J. Shoemate headed to Connecticut, tight end Blake Ayles to Miami.

All might have helped the Trojans the last two seasons.

"The grass," Kiffin laments, "is always greener."

Rhett Ellison never thought so.

His dad, Riki, was a legendary Trojans linebacker. Rhett's dream was to play for USC.

Transfer?

"I would have been disowned by my father," he says.

A coaching change from Pete Carroll to Kiffin. No more bowl games. A switch this season from tight end to fullback.

Yeah, there was adversity. But staying at USC put Ellison on track to complete a master's degree. Same for senior defensive lineman Christian Tupou.

Last week, the Trojans upset Oregon. And grew even closer.

"More than any other team I've been part of," Ellison says.

Few outsiders thought it would turn out this way. Certainly not this quickly.

Defensive tackle DaJohn Harris heard the scuttlebutt.

" 'SC's over,' " he recalls. " 'They don't have any guys anymore.' "

Harris didn't think so.

He hardly played under the former coaching staff. He looked forward to a fresh start — at USC.

Harris became a starter. He helped the Trojans become a top-10 team.

Sure, the young stars recruited by Kiffin get a lot of credit. But there is no divide on the Trojans.

"We have a lot of older guys," Harris says, "who show those young guys how to do it."

The leadership isn't always obvious. Freshman linebacker Hayes Pullard sees it every day.

Watch the end of practice, he says. The team runs conditioning sprints. Older players with nagging injuries, they try to finish first.

"These are the little things we buy into here," Pullard says.

Sophomore Robert Woods bought in last year and became a star. Freshman Marqise Lee is emerging as one. Both receivers listen to Carswell in the meeting room. Watch him in the weight room.

"One of the guys we all look up to," Woods says.

That makes Carswell proud. Family members as well.

His father, Bobby, will be on the field Saturday night when seniors are introduced. So will his mother, Jackie.

They're elated their son stayed. So is Brandon.

"He found a niche," Bobby says, "and he hangs his hat on that."

The USC seniors, they all do.

gary.klein@latimes.com

twitter.com/latimesklein

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