Blame it on Reggie Bush.
After all, you’d figure he’d be used to it by now, given the heat he’s taken for being the primary cause of USC’s NCAA sanctions.
If it weren’t for Bush and his crowd-wowing play for the Trojans from 2003 to 2005, USC coach Lane Kiffin’s announcement Tuesday that sophomore running back Dillon Baxter will no longer practice with the team wouldn’t have been such a letdown for USC supporters.
Kiffin said in a statement while Baxter won’t be part of the football program, he’s still enrolled academically at USC, leaving the door open for a possible return to the Trojans.
No matter how hard the NCAA tries, it cannot erase images of Bush darting and dashing, weaving and wiggling, and hopping and hurdling through, around and over the top of opposing defenses from the minds of USC fans.
Baxter, like fellow tailback Joe McKnight before him, fell victim to oversized expectations and the burdensome label of “the next Reggie Bush.”
The hype began before he even got to campus. Baxter’s high school stats were so video game-like that EA Sports named him “Mr. Football USA” in 2009. During his senior season at Mission Bay High School in San Diego, Baxter broke the California state record by throwing, running and catching a combined 79 touchdowns in 13 games.
He enrolled early at USC to train with the team during last year’s spring practice and became an instant hit with fans. His scintillating 50-yard touchdown run in a mid-April scrimmage became a YouTube sensation, garnering more than 1.8 million views.
After the scrimmage, Kiffin told reporters that Baxter “looked like Reggie vs. Fresno,” referring to Bush’s record setting game in November of 2005, in which he piled up a Pac-10 record 513 all-purpose yards.
Baxter, following his coach’s lead, bought into the hype too, saying, “It’s crazy just being compared to Reggie. He’s one of the greatest players I’ve ever seen run the ball. I’m excited to show everybody that I can produce the same things that he did.”
Those were powerful words for a player who hadn’t yet suited up for a single collegiate game.
Baxter finished spring practice even with senior tailback Marc Tyler and junior tailback Curtis McNeal on the Trojans’ depth chart, behind seniors Allen Bradford and C.J. Gable.
The then-freshman star continued to impress during fall camp but was suspended for USC’s opener in Hawaii for violating team rules.
Baxter returned for the Trojans’ home win over Virginia, notching 30 carries and five catches in USC’s next three games. He was solid but not explosive (his 75 rushing yards against Washington State in September of last year remain a career high) and found himself in a four-man tailback rotation with Tyler, Bradford and Gable.
The rest of Baxter’s 2010 season was devoid of any real progress on the field (he carried the ball only 29 times in the Trojans’ final nine games) but he continued to make headlines.
Baxter was held out of USC’s November contest against Oregon State after school officials learned last year he had accepted an on-campus golf cart ride from National Football League Players Association-certified agent, who was also a USC student.
USC self-reported the incident, which the school determined was a violation of NCAA rules, and Baxter returned for the following week’s game against Notre Dame. Baxter’s reputation was beginning to take a hit.
Fast-forward to this fall when the departures of Bradford and Gable, combined with Tyler’s suspension for the opener against Minnesota, made Baxter a favorite to open the season as the Trojans’ starter.
By his own admission, however, Baxter didn’t work hard enough during fall camp and didn’t get a single carry in USC’s 19-17 win over Minnesota.
Kiffin’s confidence in Baxter dissipated to the point that the coach took redshirts off freshmen Amir Carlisle and George Farmer (even moving Farmer from wide receiver to running back, a position he never played in high school) rather than give Baxter more carries.
Through seven games, Baxter has rushed for 29 yards on nine attempts. He’s routinely complained to the media about playing time this fall, even having a meeting last month with his parents and Kiffin to discuss why he hasn’t seen the field more.
Kiffin didn’t offer any explanation as to why Baxter will no longer practice with the team and speculating is a fruitless task. Reports have surfaced that Baxter’s girlfriend recently gave birth to the couple’s first child, but it’s unclear if that is related to Kiffin’s announcement.
Baxter has maintained throughout the fall that he hasn’t considered transferring.
Only a sophomore, he still has time to get his academics and family situation in order before making a possible return to the team.
He might still go on to a great career in cardinal and gold.
Perhaps, a fresh start, a change of scenery and a step out of Bush’s shadow might be exactly what Baxter needs to get back to the form that saw him earn those comparisons in the first place.
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