Amir Carlisle looking to show his true colors in Notre Dame-USC rivalry
SOUTH BEND — There were no crazy texts this week, no hang-ups in the middle of the night, no unfriendly reminders that USC football was once a part of Amir Carlisle.
The last time the Trojan transfer, now in his final season at Notre Dame, even spoke to one of his former teammates was this past summer, when the ND grad student and USC defensive tackle Antwaun Woods crossed paths in California.
That doesn’t diminish the slot receiver’s desire to take his game to a higher level Saturday night (7:30 EDT; NBC-TV), when 14th-ranked Notre Dame (5-1) hosts interim-coached Southern Cal (3-2) at Notre Dame Stadium.
He just doesn’t have a history of doing so.
Carlisle lined up as a USC kickoff returner in 2011, when the Trojans took a 34-17 season-transforming victory in South Bend but left the game early because of a knee injury without recording a stat. After transferring to ND and getting a waiver from the NCAA for immediate eligibility, Carlisle missed the USC game and the entire 2012 season because of injury.
In the two matchups that followed, the Sunnyvale, Calif., product amassed a modest total of 12 rushing yards on three carries, a 14-yard reception, and four uneventful kickoff returns for 71 yards, none of which spanned more than 20 yards.
What Carlisle does have a history of is resilience.
And through all the injuries and punctured expectations, a position switch and stiff challenges from young, ascending players, the 5-foot-10, 195-pounder continues to remain upbeat and improve himself.
“I just thank God for the opportunity to help this year,” he said. “Football is a physical game, so you’re going to experience bumps, bruises, strains. There’s some mental toughness as well with it. So you just kind of push through it and you can’t let it get you down. Sometimes you can’t even think about it.”
Carlisle enters this 87th rendition of the ND-USC rivalry as Notre Dame’s third-leading receiver, with 16 catches for 161 yards — more receptions than anyone on the USC roster, save Trojan super soph JuJu Smith-Schuster, whom the Irish unsuccessfully tried to recruit as a safety and before he hyphenated his last name legally.
USC, in fact, would probably take Carlisle back this week if it had the chance. Its second-leading receiver, junior Steve Mitchell Jr. (15-129 4), is doubtful with an ankle injury. No. 3 in receptions, sophomore Adoree’ Jackson (10-196 1) is the Trojans’ starting cornerback and lead returnman on punts and kickoffs.
Junior Isaac Whitney is next in receptions among the receiving corps (8-112 2), but interim head coach Clay Helton, who replaced deposed second-year coach Steve Sarkisian earlier this week, said the junior suffered a broken collarbone this week and is out.
Junior Darreus Rogers (7-80), recovering from a hamstring injury, will be a game-time decision. That leaves converted quarterback, redshirt freshman Jalen Greene (5-52), as USC’s next-most productive, healthy wide receiver.
Carlisle, who used to co-compose rhythm and blues songs with former Irish quarterback Everett Golson, advanced his own receiving prowess this summer by picking the brain of ND junior quarterback Malik Zaire — ND’s starter for a game and a half in 2015 before a broken ankle truncated his season.
“Learning it from a quarterback’s perspective and what he wants out of the receivers,” said the former running back. “So he really helped me understand the position a lot better.”
Carlisle, a four-star, top 100 prospect coming out of high school in 2011, said there were never any conversations initiated by the coaching staff about moving him back to running back once 2014 second-leading rusher Greg Bryant transferred in August and leading rusher Tarean Folston was lost for the season to a knee injury in the Sept. 5 opener with Texas.
“I didn’t volunteer either,” he said. “I like playing receiver, kind of operating more in space, kind of learning more of the nuances of the game. It’s still a learning process, still learning, but definitely a lot more comfortable with it now.”
And comfortable with being on the other side of the rivalry after some initial weirdness.
Carlisle has maintained his father Duane’s career path was the biggest factor in him relocating to ND. Duane Carlisle left a job with the San Francisco 49ers and became the director of sports performance for all of Purdue University’s sports programs after the 2011 season.
“Amir was interested in Notre Dame coming out of high school,” ND head coach Brian Kelly said this week. “And so there was a connection. Amir really liked Notre Dame. He liked the academic environment.
“And so there was that connection, and then of course when his dad got the job at Purdue, there was the geographical connection as well. And it just didn’t’ appear to be the right fit for him the first year (at USC).”
Carlisle’s initial fit at ND was in its running back rotation in 2013. He started the opener against Temple, touched the ball on the first offensive play of the season for the Irish and ripped off a 45-yard run. That still stands as the longest offensive play — run or reception — of his college career at either school.
He finished the season with 204 yards on 47 carries, but only 17 of those carries came in the 10 games after game three, in which he lost a fumble late in a tight win over Purdue. Over ND’s final five games of 2013, Carlisle had just three chances to carry the ball, one fewer than he already has garnered this season as a wide receiver.
In 2014, after his position switch, Carlisle caught 23 passes for 309 yards with all three of his career TDs and is on a trajectory this season to have his best statistical year. He’d love to punctuate it with his first big game against his former school.
“It was weird at first, to be honest, to go from there to here,” he said of the transfer process, “especially with the whole rivalry.
“But I just thank God for the opportunity,” he said. “I was a member of the rival team, and I was real thankful for the welcoming of everyone in the organization here.”