Jarrett finds home at Southern California

THE BALTIMORE SUN

MIAMI - Dwayne Jarrett had been on the Southern California campus less than a month last summer when he called his mother, Camille, telling her that he wanted to come back home to New Jersey.

"There was nobody around, school wasn't in session, and I told her that I didn't think it was the right place for me," Jarrett said one afternoon last week after practice. "She told me to keep pushing hard and don't give up. I had never quit anything in my life and I wasn't going to quit now."

Jarrett listened to his mother, as well as to coaches and more experienced teammates. Good thing for USC, because it's hard to tell where the top-ranked Trojans would be without their freshman wide receiver who has gone from being homesick to feeling very much at home.

One thing is nearly certain: USC (12-0) probably would not be here, getting ready to play second-ranked Oklahoma (12-0) in Tuesday's BCS championship game, the Orange Bowl at Pro Player Stadium, if not for the player who made everyone in Southern California forget about All-American Mike Williams.

With 12 touchdown catches among his team-leading 50 receptions and 734 yards, Jarrett has emerged as one of the stars in an offensive galaxy that also includes Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Matt Leinart and do-everything back Reggie Bush, a Heisman finalist.

"I definitely give credit to Coach [Norm] Chow," Jarrett said of the team's well-respected offensive coordinator. "He has a great offensive scheme to get us open. When I get the ball, I just try to take it to the house and try to make big plays and help the team win."

Jarrett also credits Leinart with helping him get over his homesickness. Leinart did it more with tough love, but he also realized how young Jarrett was and how, unlike many of his teammates, he was far from home in starting his new life.

"He was 17 coming in, just a kid," Leinart said. "At fall camp, he had a rough time. His attitude was pretty bad; he was pouting. I don't know how it feels because I'm close to home. But I kept getting on him. I kept telling him that we needed him and we needed him to step up."

As practices intensified, Jarrett's attitude improved and the Trojans realized, as Leinart said, "We knew we had something special."

Said USC coach Pete Carroll: "As soon as we got him on the practice field, you could see he was a gifted receiver. He's got extraordinary hands, great catching range, confidence in his ability. He'll make tons of good plays though his career and be highly productive.

"In one regard, we didn't get the ball to him as much as we had dreamed. Mike [Williams] caught 70 balls or something his first year and Mike has had 50. He's had a tremendous impact, big-play impact, has been a big player for us all year."

Jarrett had to replace Williams, who caught a school freshman record 14 touchdown passes and 16 more as a sophomore before making himself available for the NFL draft last spring and then losing his eligibility after signing endorsement deals.

"When I first came out there, a lot of people expected a lot of things out of me," said Jarrett, who was considered one of the top receiver prospects in the country at New Brunswick High School. "I'm used to pressure, I've been doing this all my life. It wasn't really that big an adjustment for me."

That's not exactly true. Jarrett had a bad case of nerves that resulted in catching just two passes for 8 yards and dropping a couple of more in a season-opening win against Virginia Tech in the Black Coaches Association Classic at FedEx Field, and caught only eight passes for 90 yards through three games.

After Steve Smith suffered a broken leg five games into the season, Jarrett had to make significant progress or take a seat on the bench.

The breakout came when Jarrett caught the go-ahead touchdown in a 23-17 win over California, then backed it up with five catches for 139 yards and three touchdowns the next game against Arizona State. Four of his touchdown catches have been for 50 yards or more.

His biggest play of the season might have come when he caught a big third-down pass against Cal, was flipped by a defender and held onto the ball.

"That was a big momentum push for me," Jarrett said. "I just kept working hard and things kept getting better and better."

Not that anything Jarrett has done has surprised Carroll.

"This is exactly what we hoped would happen," Carroll said of Jarrett, who at 6 feet 5 and 195 pounds is built similarly to Williams. "We had seen it before with Mike when he was a freshman, and these are very similar athletes, very talented big kids that could have a similar impact on the game."

As he got more confident on the field, Jarrett also adjusted to a much different lifestyle in celebrity-driven Los Angeles.

Asked what was the toughest part of the transition, Jarrett joked: "Definitely not the weather. California is a great place. I had to get adjusted to it. Now I love it. I wanted to come out and make the best of my opportunity. I'm maxing my opportunity."

By the time his college career is finished, Jarrett could become as big a star as Williams, maybe even bigger if he stays longer. Carroll can thank Camille Jarrett and a family friend who made the trip out to Los Angeles to persuade her son to stay put.

Jarrett is thankful he listened to his mother and remained on the West Coast rather than go back home.

"It's fun," he said. "You get a chance to grow up, be on your own, be more responsible. Mama's not there; your family's not there. It's a good transition and just a growing-up period."

And, who knows? You might even help your team win a national championship.

Orange Bowl

Matchup: No. 1 Southern California (12-0) vs. No. 2 Oklahoma (12-0) in Bowl Championship Series title game

Site: Pro Player Stadium, Miami

When: Tuesday, 8 p.m.

TV: Chs. 2, 7

Line: USC by 1 1/2

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