EUGENE — Darren Carrington’s best friend at Oregon will be his most vocal opponent Saturday.
“I’m just going to be in his head,” Oregon safety Tyree Robinson said of the former Duck who is currently Utah’s top receiver. “Do anything I can to make sure he’s just a little off. Talking to him, it might not be the most positive things.
“He knows it’s going to be a battle. He knows I’m not going to sit out there and say ‘Hey D, what’s up? How you been?’ It’s not going to be like that. I’m going to be on him, talking a lot of trash, but at the end of the day we’re still going to be brothers.”
Robinson and Carrington arrived from San Diego as part of Oregon’s 2013 recruiting class, both sat out a redshirt season and quickly contributed as freshmen, when Oregon reached the College Football Playoff. Carrington had seven catches for 165 yards and two touchdowns in a Rose Bowl victory over Florida State, then was suspended for the title game against Ohio State after failing a drug test.
The suspension carried over to the first six games of 2015, when he was also cited for being a minor in possession of alcohol.
Last year, a recent UO graduate accused Carrington of assault.
The 6-foot-3, 205-pound Carrington elected to return to Oregon for his senior season rather than make himself available for the NFL draft, and he went through spring practice with the Ducks before earning his degree.
Early on the morning of July 1, he was arrested for DUII after police found he had a blood-alcohol level of 0.11. Two weeks later, coach Willie Taggart kicked Carrington off the team.
“Darren and everyone on our team knew the situation going in,” Taggart recalled this week. “They had to be clean and do things the right way. Unfortunately, Darren had a mishap that caused him to no longer be on the team. Unfortunately for us and for him, but it seems like he bounced back and our team kept moving on.
“I wish him nothing but the best, and it’s good to see he’s had success. I just hope he doesn’t have success this week.”
Return to Autzen
Carrington joined Utah (4-3 overall, 1-3 Pac-12) as a graduate transfer and ranks fourth in the Pac-12 with 45 catches for 649 yards — an average of 92.7 yards per game, best in the conference — and five touchdowns in seven games heading into Saturday’s homecoming game at Autzen Stadium against the Ducks (4-4, 1-4).
“He’s been a perfect citizen since he’s been here,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said Tuesday. “We had a pretty extensive list of things he had to do and complete and some stipulations on how things would be for him when he got here. He has followed those to a T. There’s been no deviation from them.”
Under most transfer scenarios, a coach can block the player from moving to certain schools before granting a scholarship release. As a graduate transfer, Carrington could go anywhere, and Taggart said he would not have stopped him from staying within the conference even if he could have.
“It’s not a best-case scenario, but Darren did all he needed to here,” Taggart said. “He graduated and had done his obligation to this university. The right thing was to let him go wherever he decided to go.
“Did it bother me? Not necessarily. It bothered me he got in the situation he did because I wanted him to stay clean and not get into those situations. The kid has a bright future and I want him to continue to grow.”
Less than three months after Carrington left Eugene, he will return for an Autzen finale.
Carrington has already set a single-season high in receptions and needs 55 yards and a touchdown to match his top marks at Oregon in those categories.
“He’s been a huge plus for us,” Whittingham said. “He’s just been a big addition to the offense.”
“I feel like I’m going to get booed a little bit, but I don’t care about that,” Carrington told the Deseret News. “I like when it’s us against the world. I like that feeling. It’s going to be a fun game for me.”
Whittingham warned Carrington not to get too emotional facing his former teammates.
“Don’t press, let the game come to you,” Whittingham said. “Don’t try to play outside the framework of your job. It can work to your disadvantage if you make it too big of a deal.”
Oregon senior cornerback Arrion Springs acknowledged that he needs to heed the same message.
“I’m probably going to see him a few times throughout the game,” Springs said. “It’ll be fun. I’d be lying if I say its just like a normal game.”
Robinson had flashbacks this week to high school, when he faced Carrington before the two teamed up for four years with the Ducks.
“Those were tough battles,” he said. “We all know Darren is a great player, so we’ll prepare for him and be ready. It’s going to be weird, but a fun one to close out our career.”
Carrington has similar expectations.
“Maybe just being back there will be weird, but playing, it’s honestly just another day of football,” he said. “I played so many times in that stadium, let’s go again.”
A few Ducks, including Springs, said they have not talked to Carrington since he left the team, but Robinson keeps in touch and said Carrington is doing well. The two will not talk before the game.
“I want to be able to focus and have no distractions,” Robinson said.
Robinson knows Carrington will be a distraction on Saturday.
“We grew up against tough guys, playing older guys, so we learned how to talk trash,” Robinson said.
Springs expects to be matched up on Carrington at times during the game, as he was during practice the past three seasons, noting that each got the best of the other at times.
“He had some success, not taking anything away from Darren or myself,” Springs said.
New role at Utah
Oregon’s veteran defenders noticed on film this week that Utah is using Carrington differently from how Oregon did.
“Different routes,” Springs said. “They do a lot of (run-pass option) stuff so you have to watch him at all times. I’m pretty sure they’ll try to get him the ball and let him get comfortable.”
Robinson’s job is to make sure that does not happen.
“They’re using him a lot inside at slot receiver,” he said. “I know Darren better than anyone out there, so I’m going to do my best to show him some different things. We’re going to be ready because we know the kind of impact he brings.”
Taggart does not want his defenders relying on past knowledge to face Carrington.
“Be good in preparation and understand what we’re trying to get out of our defense and play well,” he said. “That will all help. We know Darren is a good player and has done good for Utah, so we have to make sure we’re on top of our game.”
Carrington had 10 catches in the Utes’ season-opening victory over North Dakota and had at least 100 yards in each of Utah’s first three games. He has not been back over 100 yards in the past four games, including three consecutive losses, and totaled eight catches for 65 yards in the past two games, against USC and Arizona State.
Despite Carrington’s recent struggles, Oregon defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt is wary of the former Duck.
“He’s really big and runs good routes,” Leavitt said. “He goes high and gets the ball and attacks it at its highest point. He knows what he’s doing and can find open areas.”
One of the reasons Whittingham went after Carrington was Utah’s lack of experience at receiver. Carrington has twice as many receptions as any other Utah player.
Oregon was in a situation similar to the Utes’ this spring, when Carrington joined Charles Nelson as the only experienced wide receivers until Taggart dismissed Carrington from the program. Carrington still has more receptions, receiving yards and touchdown catches for Oregon than any player wearing a Ducks uniform Saturday.
“I think our guys understood the situation and where Darren was within that situation,” Taggart said. “He graduated from here and did a lot of good things and he’ll always be their friend, but they have kept moving on.”