The best performance at the Coliseum scrimmage last weekend was not put on by Reggie Bush, Matt Leinart, Darnell Bing, or LenDale White, although all of those star players had great performances. No, it didn't belong to one of the freshman phenoms Patrick Turner, Mark Sanchez or Rey Maualuga.
Think older, shorter, and less recognizable. Think back a couple of years, if you can Trojan fans, and remember a time when Bush wasn't returning punts in the fog, hail, or sunshine. If you can remember that far back, you'll know who I'm talking about.
Once upon a time, the Trojans were lacking a consistent punt returner who could catch and return punts without making your pulse jump out the stadium. And then, out of nowhere emerged a freshman walk-on who caught punts so well he replaced such speedsters Kareem Kelly, Kevin Arbet, and Justin Wyatt.
Yes, the best performance at the Coliseum scrimmage went to redshirt senior and former walk-on wide receiver Greig Carlson.
While thousands "oohed" and "aahed" the shifty senior, who made one spectacular play after another, those who know him simply nod their head in the acknowledgement that Greig has been making those types of plays throughout his career.
A Prep-Star All West and All Western League selection out of Pacific Palisades High School, Carlson walked on to USC in 2001, head coach Pete Carroll's first year at the Trojan helm. There, he joined famed recruits Shaun Cody, Matt Leinart, and others, and outlasted such Trojan forgottens Marvin Simmons, Darryl Poston, and Raymond Tago.
Despite putting up "ridiculous" (more on this later) numbers in high school (26 touchdowns and a 20.9 yard per catch average as a wide receiver along with 4 interceptions on the defensive side), Carlson was not heavily recruited.
"I chose USC primarily because of the location; it wasn't far from home," Carlson explains. "I didn't exactly have offers from other schools (Utah State and Arizona were the only schools that showed much interest), and it's a good education, so all of those factors pretty much went into my decision."
But going from star high school player to walk-on reserve was not an easy, over night process.
"You get treated differently (when you're a walk-on)," Carlson admits. "And not just by other players. Equipment staff, trainers, and the coaches. You're kind of starting out at some sort of disadvantage."
Disadvantage or not, Carlson persevered, redshirting his freshman year. It was during that year Carlson was able to perfect what would be his artful talent.
"I learned a lot from "Flash" (Frank Candela)," Carlson explains. "He used to play outfield in baseball, so he knew where the ball would be every time, and he helped me a lot with that. You have to watch the tail of the ball and figure out where it will fall. If you do that every time, the rest is easy. I don't really think about all the other stuff (like gunners running at him at full speed). I just watch the ball and try to catch it; and I've been blessed so far I guess (for not getting injured)."
That year, Carlson would win the starting punt return job. His biggest returns were in the two biggest games of the year for 2002: versus Notre Dame (a 28-yarder) and against Iowa in the Orange Bowl (the longest of his career, a 41-yarder).
In that game, Carlson truly earned his stripes. At mid-field, Iowa punted and Carlson fielded the ball around that dangerous 10-15 yard range. Immediately upon catching the ball, Carlson was drilled by an Iowa gunner. Slow to get up and walk off the field, Iowa was penalized on the play.
Coming back to the sideline, Greig took off his helmet, unbuckled his chip strap, and revealed a gigantic, red, oozing gash along the entire length of his chin. A trainer promptly attended Carlson, who had no idea that the gunner had hit him so hard that his chinstrap cut into his chin.
Despite Carlson's injury and several USC coaches informing Carroll of his situation, USC accepted the penalty and Iowa punted again, downing the ball on the one-yard line. Later, quarterback Carson Palmer would have to make an amazing scramble to the down marker to gain the first down by drawining a personal foul penalty from an Iowa linebacker for making a late hit out of bounds. The Trojans would go on to score a touchdown on the drive.
Later in the quarter, Carlson would go back in the game, with his chin stapled to his face, and unleash his exciting 41-yard return, the closest he's come to scoring a touchdown in a game.
After the game, the gigantic gash would require 11 stitches and 12 staples. Not a pretty sight.
After that season, Carlson was one of the first walk-ons that Carroll ever awarded a scholarship.
"I was happiest for my mom," Carlson says of the scholarship. "I knew it gave her some sort of gratification knowing that I would be happy because of it. It was a relief financially, obviously. Getting a scholarship here was a pretty exciting time of my life."
However, Greig would not be able to sit on his accomplishments for long. Early that season (2003), he received fierce competition for his starting spot from speedy cornerback Justin Wyatt, former incumbent Kevin Arbet, and hot shot all everything recruit Reggie Bush.
And yet, for the most part of the season, Carlson was able to fight them off, again performing his best during a huge, turning point game that season - returning 4 punts for 66 yards (including a 20-yarder) against Arizona State.
Unfortunately, it was his second season in a row with limited playing time (mostly as a blocker) at his natural position, wide receiver.
"It's frustrating knowing that there's a lot of us that could be playing," Carlson admits, but "sitting and watching Steve and Dwayne (and former Trojans Mike Williams and Keary Colbert) -those guys are really good and they deserve to play. People have asked me if I would rather have gone to a smaller school and play or if I'm happier here. I've met great people and made great connections here, so I'm not upset with my decision."
2004 was Carlson's worst year statistically, as he eventually saw Reggie Bush claim the position of punt returner. But there are no hard feelings.
"I can't really complain about Reggie being the starter. He is the most "ridiculous" player in college football."
"Ridiculous" is definitely a word that can be used to describe Bush, arguably the most electric football player in America. But likewise, it could definitely be used to describe Greig's performance at last week's scrimmage.
But despite Carlson's lack of playing time on gameday, he continued to help the team through other means.
Typically, the scout team during the week is composed of redshirt freshmen, walk ons, and players who recently switched positions and thus learning on the fly. But Carlson, a redshirt upper classmen, swallowed his pride last year and helped contribute, emulating opposing teams best players such as Mike Haas, Chad Owens, and others.
"I just want to be thought of as a guy that works hard and is a good teammate," Greig responds.
Going into this season, which will be his last, Carlson understands what it takes to not only win, but help his team in the process.
"We have to take it one game at a time and not get ahead of ourselves," Carlson continues. "Our first goal is always (winning) the Pac-10. We just really want to win. Is the national title in our minds? Yeah, but if we're thinking right, we shouldn't be thinking about only that."
And if Greig Carlson can continue making amazing left one-handed catches (the best this writer's seen by someone who is NOT left-handed) or fade receptions over corners several inches taller than him, he'll not only be helping the team during practices, but maybe on Saturday's too.
Like Carlson tells this writer, "this season's gonna be a doozey."
Greig Carlson is a political science major. He currently ranks 18th on USC's career punt return list with 53 returns for 379 yards, a 7.2 yard average.