SUNNY DAYS AHEAD
Tra Carson leaves Oregon to bask in future of Aggie football
by Rusty Burson
12th Man Magazine
Texas A&M junior running back Tra Carson does not pretend to be any kind of meteorologist.
The recreation, parks, and tourism sciences major is far too busy focusing on football and his studies at Texas A&M to make forecasts about the unpredictable springtime weather in Texas.
On the other hand, Carson says he does have a strong feeling about what is happening with weather today in Eugene, Ore. It’s probably the same forecast as yesterday. And tomorrow. And next week.
“It’s probably cool, cloudy and raining right now in Oregon,” said the 6-foot, 230-pound Carson, who scored six touchdowns in 2013, his debut season in Aggieland. “I got very tired of the rain. You wake up, and it’s raining. You go to sleep, and it is raining. You walk to class in the rain, and you always have to be prepared for the rain. For me, it was gloomy and depressing. I like the sun, and I don’t mind the heat. I like it here so much better. Just look at those blue skies out there today.”
Sitting inside the Lohman Lobby of the Bright Football Complex, Carson points toward the windows that reveal glorious blue skies on a picturesque, chamber-of-commerce, late-March day in Aggieland. Carson and his teammates will continue spring practices later in the day, and the former University of Oregon running back says he is more appreciative of the Texas weather than ever before because of the one season he spent with the Ducks.
- Rhonda Carson
And like the typical springtime, summer and fall conditions in the Lone Star State, the forecast for Carson’s future in Aggieland is shining brightly. After sitting out the 2012 season because of the NCAA’s transfer rules, Carson rushed for 308 yards in 2013, ranking fourth among A&M players behind Johnny Manziel, Ben Malena and Trey Williams.
With the departure of Manziel and Malena, Carson figures to play a much more prominent role for the Aggies in 2014. Trey Williams is an explosive and elusive breakaway threat, and A&M also possesses a couple of other promising running backs in former five-star recruit and Oklahoma transfer Brandon Williams and redshirt freshman James White from Pearland Dawson.
But Carson, who earned the nickname “Baby Rhino” during his prep playing days at Texarkana’s Liberty-Eylau High School, is particularly unique with his extremely punishing, powerful running style. Texas A&M offensive coordinator Jake Spavital says he is thoroughly appreciative of that running back depth, especially as he envisions opening the season on Aug. 28 at South Carolina with a new quarterback.
“It will definitely take the pressure off of whomever the quarterback is next year because we have great depth at the running back spot and we also return a very talented offensive line,” Spavital said. “I have worked at places before like at Oklahoma State where you have an inexperienced quarterback, but you can lean heavily on a great offensive line and running backs to help an inexperienced quarterback develop and gain confidence. I believe that will be the case next year, especially as you look at playing South Carolina in the opener in a hostile environment.
“The running back situation here really is a luxury for me, as I have seen this spring. Trey Williams is a very shifty back who has that very special ability to make people miss. People forget about Brandon Williams and the speed that he brings, and James White is now in the mix, too. With Tra Carson, he brings another dimension to the group. Tra has the speed to break a long run like he did in the final two games of the season against Missouri (a 29-yard touchdown run) and against Duke in the Chick-fil-A Bowl (a 21-yard TD run). But he can also just wear a defense down. He will pound away at you with his downhill running style, which is especially valuable in the SEC. I am certainly glad that Tra Carson is one of my guys. Oregon’s loss was definitely our gain.”
While Aggies’ coaches were delighted that Carson chose to transfer from Oregon to Texas A&M following his debut season with the Ducks in 2011, Carson’s mother, Rhonda, says she was ecstatic. She sensed that her son was making a mistake by following in the footsteps of former Liberty-Eylau High School star LaMichael James, who is now with the San Francisco 49ers after a stellar collegiate career with the Ducks.
“I was disappointed with his decision to go to Oregon in the first place because I knew I wasn’t going to be able to make a lot of his games,” Rhonda Carson said from her home in Texarkana. “But it was his decision, so I supported him. Right from the start in Oregon, I knew he was missing us because I have always been there to support him. He has been playing football ever since second grade, and I think I had only missed like five of his games. No one knows it, but he is a momma’s boy. He really is. I suppose I have spoiled him all his life. That’s another reason I’m very glad he came back to Texas. He always texts me before games now to ask me where I’m sitting. He says he plays better if he knows where I am. I am at every home game now that he is back in Texas.
“Texas A&M is the right place for him for many reasons. He likes the school, he enjoys Coach (Kevin) Sumlin, he likes his teammates, and I know he is looking forward to really big things the rest of his career at A&M. Aggie fans have only seen a little bit of what he can do so far. I have no doubt that the best is yet to come.”
A WINDING PATH TO A&M
Carson lived in the tiny country town of Clarksville (approximate population of 3,900) along the Texas-Oklahoma border until his family moved to Texarkana when he was in the fourth grade.
He wasn’t initially the best athlete in his own home, and he certainly wasn’t the most high-profile football player when he arrived at Class 3A Liberty-Eylau High. Carson’s parents, Rhonda and Richard Carson, adopted their nephew, Marqueston Huff, and raised him as one their own kids. Huff, who is six months older and one year ahead of Tra in school, was an extremely talented athlete who earned all-state honors as a sprinter and high jumper in high school.
On the football field, Huff was a two-time captain at Liberty-Eylau and was named to the All-Northeast Texas team as a senior defensive back. He was recruited by Baylor, Missouri and New Mexico, but he ultimately chose to play at Wyoming, where he was a four-year letterman for the Cowboys. Huff earned second-team All-Mountain West Conference honors in 2013 and played in the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala. in January.
“I’ve got my fingers crossed that my brother (Huff) will be drafted (this May),” Carson said. “He’s a very talented guy, and he was always pushing me when we were growing up. I am way bigger than he is now, but he was older and rougher early in our childhood. It helped me to be a better athlete because he was always encouraging me to do more. I definitely looked up to him.”
When Carson reached high school, he also looked up to James, a running back who started as a sophomore for the Leopards and then blossomed into a star as a junior, rushing 1,600 yards and 16 touchdowns. Then as a senior in 2007, James was absolutely sensational, rushing for 2,043 yards and 26 touchdowns. In one particularly memorable contest, James set a city single-game rushing record with 322 yards. James also won the 100 meters at the state track meet in 2006 with a time of 10.51.
James was recruited by numerous schools and chose Oregon, where he was redshirted in 2008 and became a star in ’09 when he was chosen as the Pac-10’s Offensive Freshman of the Year. In 2010, James became Oregon’s first unanimous All-American and also won the Doak Walker Award as the nation’s top running back.
All of James’ high school and collegiate accomplishments certainly had an impact on Carson, who was initially considered too slow to play running back for the Ducks. Following his sophomore year at Liberty-Eylau, Carson dealt with a cold dose of reality from Oregon running backs coach Gary Campbell.
“I didn’t really think that he had the speed that we needed for him to carry the football, and I told him that quite honestly,” Campbell said, as reported by Lindsay Schnell of The Oregonian.
Upon hearing that opinion, Carson immediately went to work to prove Campbell wrong. He spent all summer prior to his junior year in high school running up and down hills, and he ran sprints on the junior varsity track team in the spring because he wasn’t fast enough to make the varsity.
By his senior year, however, all of Carson’s hard work paid off. He was still as powerful as ever, but he also was fast and elusive enough to break LaMichael James’ single-season rushing school record, compiling 2,202 yards and 24 TDs on 196 carries. Midway through Carson’s senior year, Campbell watched a DVD of Liberty-Eylau and saw a different Tra Carson than he had once observed.
“Immediately, I went in and talked to (former Oregon head coach Chip) Kelly and said, ‘Hey, this guy did what I asked him to do, I want to offer him a scholarship,’” Campbell recalled.
In 2011, James became the first two-time consensus All-American in Oregon history and ranked second nationally in rushing with 1,805 yards. Meanwhile, Carson, playing as a true freshman, was the Ducks’ fourth-leading rusher with 254 yards, while appearing in 10 games. Undoubtedly, Carson had a bright future in Eugene.
But his heart, his thoughts and his family were back in Texas. And in March 2012, Carson announced that he was leaving the Pacific Northwest, becoming the third running back from Texas to leave Oregon since the end of 2010, along with Dontae Williams and Lache Seastrunk, who went on to become a star performer at Baylor.
Carson considered numerous college options after leaving Oregon, but the arrival of Sumlin in Aggieland and the move to the SEC tilted the scales in Texas A&M’s advantage, Carson says.
“I originally chose Oregon really because LaMichael went there,” Carson recalled. “I looked up to him and saw the success he was having. The facilities in Oregon got me, too. It was like something I had never seen before. But once I got up there, I realized it was too far away from home. My family never could come see me play. It just wasn’t right for me. I went for the wrong reasons, obviously, because my friend was there and I wanted to follow in his footsteps. I didn’t take the time to think about if I really wanted to be there.
“Sitting out the 2012 season was probably one of the hardest things I had ever had to do. Not being able to play was terrible. But I worked very hard, and it all paid off for me. Last year was pretty good for me and the team, but I definitely want more (in 2014). Hopefully, we can take the next step this year.”
At one point last year, an eerily quiet Kyle Field was hoping and praying that Carson would take any kind of another step. In a 57-7 win over UTEP on Nov. 2, 2013, Carson went down with an apparent head/neck injury during the fourth quarter. He was tackled on what appeared to be a relatively routine play, and then sat up holding his neck. After a few seconds, he fell back to the turf, and for precautionary reasons, he was carted off the field.
Carson said he immediately felt a sharp pain in his neck and the right side of his body went numb. By the time he reached the locker room he was feeling better and X-rays confirmed that no serious injury had occurred. But it was a scary moment, Carson acknowledges, and it was a reminder of how the next play could be the last one.
“It was scary, especially when I felt the numbness,” Carson said. “You never know what the future holds, so I just think that was a reminder to me to play every play with passion and 100 percent effort. Going into this year, I just really want to win. Whatever I can do to help the team win in any aspect is what I want to do. I don’t have any big personal goals; I just want to do whatever it takes to win.
“It’s going to be different this year without Johnny Manziel. I think we are going to lean on the run a little more because we have (inexperienced) quarterbacks. That is perfectly alright with me, and I am already looking forward to that first game of the season at South Carolina. That’s going to be fun.”
It’s also likely to be hot and humid in late August. But that’s just fine with Tra Carson. He’ll take the blazing sun over the dreary clouds any day, which is one of the many reasons he is back in Texas where he says he always belonged.