Kragthorpe: Darren Carrington II lives up to the billing for Utes

Former Oregon receiver makes career-high 10 catches<br>

(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes wide receiver Darren Carrington (9) celebrates his touchdown during the game at Rice-Eccles Stadium Thursday, August 31, 2017. Utah Utes are leading North Dakota Fighting Hawks 17-9 at halftime.

Nothing like this will ever happen again in college football.

Nine months after catching the last pass of the 2016 season at Rice-Eccles Stadium, Darren Carrington II was back in the venue Thursday night. Wearing a Utah uniform, the former Oregon receiver made the first catch of 2017 on the same field.

And there were a lot more receptions where that came from, during the Utes’ 37-16 victory over North Dakota.

Apparently, Carrington just needed to come to a passing school. His 10 catches (for 127 yards) marked a career high for the graduate transfer, who was dismissed by Oregon in July after a DUI arrest.

Gary Andersen, the coach of rival Oregon State, labeled him “a game-changer.” Carrington sure looked that way against the Fighting Hawks. Oregon wouldn’t have beaten Utah last November without Carrington, who caught a touchdown pass with two seconds remaining. Any such statement about Thursday’s performance would be an exaggeration, but there’s no doubting this Ute offense looks different than the old model — and he’s a big reason why.

The Utes haven’t had a receiver like him since … who? Steve Smith, maybe? Kevin Dyson? And those guys played here nearly 20 years ago.

The lasting images of Carrington’s ability surfaced on two third-and-long plays on Utah’s last touchdown drive Thursday. Quarterback Tyler Huntley found him on the sideline for 12 yards, as Carrington went high to grab the ball. And then, they connected down the middle for 23 yards, just short of the goal line. “You put the ball in the general vicinity, he’s going to come away with it,” said Ute coach Kyle Whittingham.

Afterward, Carrington said the standard stuff about being “just blessed to be here” and “thankful for another chance.” The truth is, that’s how he played.

“He’s been embraced by the whole football team,” Whittingham said. “So far, he’s been everything we’ve hoped he would be.”

Whittingham spoke of “conditions” for Carrington’s standing with the team, cautioning, “We’re only one game into this.”

(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes wide receiver Troy McCormick Jr. (4) leaps into the end zone past North Dakota Fighting Hawks defensive back Tanner Palmborg (21) during the game at Rice-Eccles Stadium Thursday, August 31, 2017. The play was called back due to a Utah foul. Utah Utes are leading North Dakota Fighting Hawks 17-9 at halftime.

Any failure of Carrington’s to maximize this opportunity would be surprising, with so much at stake in his NFL pursuits. Questions will persist about why Utah willingly took in Carrington, but my stance is consistent: As long as everybody recognizes this is a business arrangement between parties that need each other, and not some kind of humanitarian act, I can endorse it.

He’ll be fun to watch around here, that’s for sure. Offensive coordinator Troy Taylor’s scheme is designed to get the ball into the hands of his playmakers quickly, and Carrington will thrive in it. He gained a bunch of yards after the catch — except when he grabbed Huntley’s pass in the front corner of the end zone, giving Utah a 14-6 lead in the second quarter.

Carrington never caught more than seven passes in a game for Oregon, although he had 165 receiving yards in the 2014 College Football Playoff semifinals vs. Florida State.

The curiosity about Taylor’s offense was among the reasons Sports Illustrated included Utah-North Dakota as part of its 2017 College Road Trip — an imaginary, 14-week journey covering 21 games.

To observe the occasion of the season opener, Utah published game programs with a cover photo of the old QB — a function of production deadlines, undoubtedly. The feature story about Troy Williams noted how he “did not envision playing for three teams during his college career.” Or beginning his senior as a backup, obviously.

Williams appeared only in the last minute, when his two kneel-down losses brought Utah’s total offense under 500 yards for the night. In that mop-up role, he missed the chance that Huntley enjoyed, of having Carrington make him look good.