Randall Carroll has gradually worked his way from one side of the ball to the other over the past couple of weeks, switching from receiver to defensive back, but he'll take a giant leap in that regard Saturday at Utah, where he is expected to start at cornerback.
Carroll will replace Aaron Hester, suspended for the first half for comments he made criticizing officials last weekend, meaning Carroll will need to make a quick transition from the situational defensive back he was last week to starter. But if there's anything Carroll is good at, it's being quick.
He's a former state high school champion in the 100 meters and also sprints for the UCLA track team, placing sixth in the 100 in the Pac-10 championships last spring.
He was also a two-way standout in high school, so making the transition to defensive back has come naturally to Carroll, who had one tackle while playing as a third down nickel back last week against Arizona State.
"I’m very comfortable [at defensive back]," Carroll said. "I’m just a confident player so anywhere I can play, I just want to play with confidence. That’s the first step anyway because when you don’t play with confidence you’re already beat at any position on the field."
Carroll was recruited as a defensive back by some schools, but came to UCLA as a receiver. The receiver position has a lot of depth this season and injuries in the defensive backfield left that a little thin. Carroll began talking about switching when it became apparent safeties Tony Dye and Alex Mascarenas and cornerback Jamie Graham would be out for a lengthy period.
When Sheldon Price injured his knee, Carroll began working out with the defense. Then, when safety Dietrich Riley went down against California, Carroll made the official switch.
"We've had such attrition in the secondary," coach Rick Neuheisel said. "After losing Dietrich, I just said 'You've got to spend a whole week there.'"
Some say he's a natural fit for the position. His speed is obviously an asset, but he's got the instincts and intangibles that coaches look for in cornerbacks.
"He’s really blessed with the ability to flip his hips and run and change directions and some of the things that are hard to coach," defensive backs coach Tim Hundley said. "He’s as athletic a guy as you can have plus he’s very bright. He's caught on to the defense pretty quickly. Plus, he's fast as all get out."
Carroll said he's long thought about being a two-way player and last week he did actually play on both sides of the ball. He was in mostly on defense, but at the end of the first half, when UCLA was kneeling on the ball to run out the clock, Carroll lined up as the deep back to be the safety in case of a fumble.
"I was supposed to do some other stuff on offense, but it never got called because of how the game was going," he said.
His first foray onto the defensive side of the ball didn't go so well. He came on in the second quarter, but lined up in the wrong formation.
"When I first went out there, I went out there with the wrong play," Carroll said. "Someone had to tell me what it was."
He adjusted and made the tackle on that first play. he also proved to be a menace as a blitzing corner, using his speed to disrupt Arizona State quarterback Brock Osweiler. Carroll didn't get a sack, but he hurried Osweiler enough to cause incompletions.
His speed also comes in handy because his coverage skills are a little rusty.
"Right now my technique isn’t as sound as it should be because I haven’t been playing here all year so my makeup speed is helping me a lot," he said.
The transition to defense isn't without its drawbacks. Carroll is one of the most liked players among the wide receiver corps and has been close to just about everyone in that group. Now, however, he's going up against them in practice every day.
"It’s funny because I see them from the other side," he said. "I’m really close with all the receivers and when I’m covering them we’re just out there talking mess to each other out there and who can beat who and it’s always a battle. If you can beat me off the line or if I’m going to jam you, it’s just a constant battle all day."
For the record, Shaquelle Evans is the best trash talker, according to Carroll, and Nelson Rosario is the toughest to cover.
But the real challenge, of course, is covering the opposing receivers on game day. But even with only one game of situational experience under his belt, Carroll said he's ready for the added workload and is happy just to be on the field and away from the logjam at receiver that prevented him from getting much playing time.
"If the team needs me to go play on defense then I’ll go play defense or long snapper," Carroll said. "I just believe I can play anywhere."
"Not quarterback," he said. "I can’t really throw."
Ah yes, but he can run.