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Kenan Christon impresses USC coaches with his versatility at running back

As the freshman speedster reached the second level of the defense, USC coach Clay Helton held his breath. Kenan Christon had just one man to beat, and Helton liked his chances.

With the Trojans down to their fourth-string running back, this was the kind of play he was hoping to see with Christon, who was one of USC’s last backs standing. In open space, with room to run, there was little hope of catching the Trojans’ record-setting sprinter.

It was when that space closed that USC coaches had questioned what Christon could handle. At 185 pounds, they felt a need to protect the freshman. But as Christon took the lead role out of necessity Friday night, with 14 carries for 76 yards in a 35-31 road victory over Colorado, he proved to Helton and USC’s staff that he’s capable of being more than just a big-play threat.

“I think he can run any play in our offense,” Helton said Sunday.

He might have to this week for the Trojans (5-3, 4-1) because the statuses of USC’s top three backs remain in question with Pac-12 Conference favorite Oregon (7-1, 5-0) on tap Saturday at the Coliseum. Running backs Vavae Malepeai (knee) and Markese Stepp (ankle) are both expected to miss the game, while Stephen Carr, who suffered a hamstring injury against Arizona, could return.

Before Friday’s game, USC’s coaches weren’t in consensus about an increased role for Christon. Both offensive coordinator Graham Harrell and running backs coach Mike Jinks talked last week about limiting Christon’s workload in order to protect the diminutive, home run back.

That conservative approach was apparent from the start Friday. On its opening drive, USC didn’t use a running back at all, instead deciding to employ receiver Amon-ra St. Brown as a runner out of a five-wide empty set.

When Christon was called on one drive later, he sprinted outside the tackles for 13 yards on his first carry. But he was quiet the rest of the first half. As USC headed into the locker room, he had just five carries, the majority of which came on runs outside the tackles.

But after halftime, as USC clawed its way back against Colorado, Christon’s role began to expand. He took inside zone handoffs up the middle. He stood strong as a pass blocker. He slinked between tacklers, fighting for extra yards. As he piled up 76 rushing yards, plus two catches that included a receiving score, Christon proved for one night that he is capable of grinding out tough yards if called upon.

“He’s a kid that can handle a bunch of touches,” Helton said. “He handled 16 on Friday night and didn’t look tired. He looked fresh. Obviously, he had some opportunities on some inside, outside zone, and he averaged [5.4] yards per carry.”

Expect to see more of those opportunities moving forward, even if Carr returns this week. But against the Ducks’ stout defensive front, Christon could have trouble finding the same success between the tackles. Oregon has allowed opposing backs to rush for just 3.2 yards per carry this season.

While he wouldn’t provide a comprehensive injury update, Helton noted that senior defensive end Christian Rector (ankle) and freshman cornerback Chris Steele (knee) are “on the cusp” of returning. … USC didn’t suffer any serious injuries against Colorado. Helton hoped that two consecutive days off, which were mandated by the NCAA, would help return the Trojans to full health. ... Right tackle Drew Richmond fought through an illness during Friday’s game, which explained his periodic absences on the offensive line. … Helton called punter Ben Griffiths the “hidden gem of the night” in USC’s comeback win. Griffiths averaged 46 yards per punt Friday and flipped the field on one particularly important punt late in the game.

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