It sort of just happened.
First, let’s clarify a bit. Baxter, a running back, had a really great day — so great, he broke a remarkable 50-yard touchdown run and led all backs with 94 yards on just nine carries, and caught another two passes.
Afterward, USC coach Lane Kiffin was asked about Baxter in his post-practice meeting with the media. Kiffin, who’s been nothing if not reserved and cordial since arriving at USC in January, surprisingly didn’t shy away from making quite the bold statement about his new offensive weapon.
“He looked like Reggie versus Fresno,” Kiffin said simply.
Reggie versus Fresno, of course, refers to one of the best Trojan performances in recent history, a 513-yard all-purpose day from former USC running back — and current New Orleans Saint — Reggie Bush in a key November home game against Fresno State in 2005.
Bush also had a remarkable 50-yard touchdown run in that game in which he evaded literally every defender that attempted to tackle him and went completely untouched while traversing the field back and forth.
Kiffin said that Baxter’s run on Saturday — against a defense composed of walk-ons, reserves and a starter or two — compared to it favorably.
“Phenomenal,” Kiffin said of his new offensive weapon. “It didn’t matter who was there. Nobody could tackle him.”
Nobody could tackle Baxter, a San Diego native, in high school either. The MaxPreps National Player of the Year as a quarterback put up ridiculous numbers on his way to becoming a five-star recruit. So far, the 6-foot, 200-pound speedster is calm and poised with the media.
“I don’t have the fastest straight-away speed, but I can make a couple dudes miss,” Baxter told reporters Saturday. “Right now I’m just a pretty shifty back, but I’m going to work on getting bigger and just be a big shifty back.”
When asked about Bush and the pending comparisons between the two backs, Baxter expressed a little bit of wonderment.
“It’s crazy just being compared to Reggie,” Baxter said, who could be third in the line of great USC running backs from the San Diego area after Bush and Marcus Allen before him. “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.”
Therein lies the rub, though. How do we know that anyone can ever produce the same things that Bush did?
Bush was a one-time thing. One of the reasons departing running back Joe McKnight’s USC career will largely be remembered as unsuccessful was the abnormally high expectations he faced coming in as a freshman and how it was almost impossible for him to match them — no matter what he did. McKnight totaled more than 2,000 rushing yards and more than 500 receiving yards in just three seasons as a Trojan, but people counted on him to be the next Bush — and thus, he was deemed a failure.
And Saturday’s comments from Kiffin have only put similar pressure on Baxter. As a freshman this year, he will struggle to find carries behind the three-headed tandem of seniors Allen Bradford, C.J. Gable and junior Marc Tyler. He will struggle to learn and digest the playbook. He will struggle with the adjustment to balancing academics and athletics, one he has already admitted is taking a lot out of him.
The last thing he needs to struggle with is wondering whether or not he will live up to expectations.
Now, Kiffin might like to have that one back. But that line — that “He looked like Reggie” — will stay with Baxter for the rest of his Trojans career, much like McKnight’s reputation stayed with him throughout his three years with the Trojans.
Only time will tell whom Baxter ends up more like — Bush or McKnight.
“Looking Past the X’s and O’s” runs Mondays. To comment on this article, visit dailytrojan.com or e-mail Pedro at firstname.lastname@example.org.