When Stephen Carr was overwhelming defenses at Summit High School in Fontana, Calif., he was pursued by every school that thought it had even a glimmer at a chance at landing him.
A five-star recruit who rushed for 2,123 yards and 31 touchdowns as a senior, Carr not only got scholarship offers from nine of the schools in the Pac-12, but also Alabama, Georgia, LSU, Miami, Michigan, Nebraska, Notre Dame, Oklahoma and Tennessee. He was named an All-American by PrepStar and MaxPreps, not to mention All-California by USA Today.
But as a kid from southern California, he only wanted to play for Southern California. His high school was an hour away from Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and USC was the only team he’d ever rooted for.
“USC, that was my dream school when I was a kid,” Carr said on a Zoom press conference Tuesday with Indiana reporters when asked what schools he considered as a high school recruit. “As soon as I got the offer, I committed. I loved visiting the other schools, that was amazing and it was a great experience for me to see. But USC had my heart ever since I was a young kid.”
And from Carr, the Trojans got the four years he initially committed to. In part because of injury, they never got the dominant running back it appeared that he would be. He rushed for 1,319 yards and 12 touchdowns on 264 carries spread out over four seasons and caught 57 passes for 421 yards and a touchdown. However, he was never the Trojans’ leading rusher and he never had more than 81 carries or 396 yards in a single season, and if he was out of eligibility after the 2020 season his professional prospects wouldn’t have been great.
But because the NCAA decided not to count 2020 against anyone’s eligibility because of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic – which was the reason the Trojans only played six games and opted out of a bowl game after losing to Oregon in the Pac-12 title game — Carr gets another chance to work on his game at the college level.
And he decided this time, it would be best to do it away from home where he won’t have all the distractions that come from staying in the place where you grew up.
“It was very tough to leave USC,” Carr said. “I’ve had some of my greatest moments there. I grew up around that school since I was a kid. I think I’ve gained a majority of the knowledge that I need from USC and I respect USC to the highest, man. Being away from my family and friends, not being able to hang out with them so easily, I think this gives me an opportunity to focus on myself and learn a lot about myself. Really determine if I really want it that bad or not, which I think I do — I don’t think I do, I know I do. But I can’t wait to see the end result of these next five months.”
He picked Indiana as a new home because it allowed him to reunite with his first college running backs coach, the one who recruited him, Deland McCullough. McCullough was at USC for Carr’s first season, which also happened to be his most productive overall. Carr rushed for 363 yards and three touchdowns on 65 carries — a career-high 5.6 yards per carry average — and also caught 17 passes for a career high 188 yards for a career-high 551 yards from scrimmage. He tore his plantar fascia during the season or it would have been even more impressive.
McCullough taught Carr things about the running back position that he never knew, and mostly never had to worry about as a high schooler when he could dominate on sheer talent.
“Coming out of high school, I didn’t really know too much about football,” Carr said. “I would just get the ball and run and it worked out, thank God. Coming into my freshman year, he explained the whole blocking scheme to me, how to read holes, how to read the first-down defender. How to call out a D-lineman as a three-tech or a five-tech, stuff like that, and that’s very important when it comes to communication and coming back to the sideline and talking to your coach.”
McCullough left for the Kansas City Chiefs after that season, where he was on the sidelines for three AFC title games, two Super Bowls and one Super Bowl title. In that time, he watched coach Tom Allen build Indiana to prominence from a distance and decided he wanted to be part of it, taking on an associate head coach role in hopes of building his resumé so he could be eventually be a head coach himself.
Carr was not quite as effective while McCullough was gone. That was in part due to injury. He had to work back from the foot problem and also missed spring practice in 2018 with a herniated disc in his back. He sprained his right ankle during the 2018 season and missed time, then missed more with a hamstring injury in 2019.
When he was a true freshman, he pushed USC star Ronald Jones for time. But as a sophomore, he was eclipsed by Aca’Cedric Ware and Vavae Malepai. Malepai has outgained Carr each of the last three seasons.
Carr heads into this fifth year healthy and hoping to hone his approach. He admits that he needs to go more North-South than East-West as he has at times in the past.
“I would describe my running style as very elusive and I can run downhill,” Carr said. “I just need to make better decisions with my run game. That will take me to the next level. Stop thinking too much. Just get straight to the point and get those dirty yards.”
Carr gets an opportunity to battle for a vacant starting job left by Stevie Scott, who left after three years and 2,543 rushing yards and signed as an undrafted free agent with the New Orleans Saints. The Hoosiers return three running backs who had carries last season in Tim Baldwin Jr., Sampson James and David Elllis, but none of them have the experience that Carr does.
That gives him a chance to provide a missing piece for an Indiana team bringing back most of its starters from a 6-2 team that took down Michigan, Penn State and Michigan State in the same season for the first time in program history and finished second in the Big Ten East before falling to Ole Miss in the Outback Bowl. The Hoosiers finished last season ranked No. 12 nationally and will likely start this season as a top 25 team, possibly even in the top 15 for the first time since 1968.
“That Indiana team was great,” Carr said. “I watched a lot of their games last year and it was hard not to pick this school.”
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