Arizona's Carey emerging as elite running back
TUCSON, Ariz. -- The first time Pat Nugent saw Ka’Deem Carey play football, Carey was a high school freshman barreling over players two years older than him and running into the end zone.
That was six years ago, when he was a freshman at Tucson's Canyon del Oro High School -- running over a junior varsity player and scoring on an 80-yard play.
He had – and still has – a nose for the end zone.
“I just said, ‘Wow this kid can play,’ ” recalled Nugent, CDO's varsity coach at the time.
It only got better. The next time – when Nugent got a glimpse of him on film – Carey was scoring seven touchdowns in a freshman game against Cienega High, flipping over a player in the end zone and landing on his feet.
Carey’s legend was born.
“The game just came naturally to him; he’s a special kid,’’ Nugent said. “He came in one day and set two records at CDO in the power clean (weight lifting), and he didn’t know what he was doing. It just came natural.”
Translation: He was doing things way beyond his years.
“He was doing things on the varsity field that most seniors don’t do ... and physically beyond what others were doing,” Nugent said.
“He played freshman ball in one or two more games, was moved up to JV for two games,’’ said Nugent, who coached Carey for two years before becoming the head coach of Pima Community College. “We knew right away he’d be a superstar.”
Now in his sophomore season at Arizona, Carey remains on that trajectory.
Carey, who Wednesday was named to the watch list for the Maxwell Award presented to the nation's top running back, is coming off a career-best 172-yard game in last week's 52-17 rout of Washington. It was his third consecutive 100-yard effort, and fifth of the season.
Through seven games at Arizona, the local product has gained 842 yards on the ground and scored 11 touchdowns. He's added 222 yards and another touchdown on 22 receptions, placing him fifth in the school record book for touchdowns in a season. Last year, he had just 425 yards in a role many said was too infrequent.
“Oh, goodness, where to start?” said UA receiver Austin Hill, when speaking of Carey’s impact on the team.
“Ka’Deem is a hard worker," Hill said. "Every single time he touches the ball, he runs like his life depended on it. That’s a great trait to see in anybody. He never tries to let the first tackler take him down.”
Perhaps the best compliment is the one Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez gave him over the weekend: He runs hungry.
Picture Pac Man, gobbling up yardage, and as the game gets longer, he gets faster.
Rodriguez credits Carey and quarterback Matt Scott with picking up the Wildcats' new offensive concepts pretty quickly.
It seems football is second nature to Carey, who rushed for 5,701 yards and scored 87 touchdowns in his high school career.
Coaches often say the biggest improvement for most players comes between their freshman and sophomore seasons, and Rodriguez agrees when it comes to Carey. Confidence plays a part, as does his desire to compete.
“Guys who it’s really important to (succeed) and have a real big competitive streak will do whatever it takes to learn and be good,’’ Rodriguez said. “And that’s what Ka’Deem does.’’
It’s no shock to former UA player and local high school star David Adams, who had a solid career as a Wildcat in the mid-1980s. In his three-year career, Adams rushed for 2,436 yards and 15 touchdowns at Arizona.
“I saw him in high school and I knew he was special when I saw him then,’’ Adams said. “This is not surprising me. I was impressed then and I’m impressed now.”
Having lived it, Adams dismissed the notion of added pressure for a hometown star playing for the local university.
"In fact, it’s always a bonus because no matter what you do, it’s blown up positively usually,’’ he said. “When you have 100 yards it’s like you had 500 yards. When you have a bad game, it’s kind of like, well, he just wasn’t getting any help. It’s always a positive when you play in your hometown.
“The only negative is that you never get enough tickets.”
That could be even more problematic this week, when No. 9 USC comes to Tucson for a 12:30 p.m. game. The yardage might be harder to come by against the Trojans, too. But Rodriguez says one thing he doesn’t have to worry about with Carey is effort.
“When I got here, I heard that we had a really good tailback in him,’’ said Rodriguez. “Until you coach someone, you don’t know their toughness, their mental attitude and their approach to working hard in practice and in the game."
Rodriguez made note of Carey's response after losing a fumble on Arizona's first second-half possession against Washington.
"He takes care of the ball. You should have seen him after he dropped the ball. His mouth was bloody, and he had gotten hit hard. He came up to me and said ‘Coach, I won’t fumble again.’ I told him ‘I know you won’t, I’m not worried about that.’
"He was hungry to get right back out there and compete again. That’s the type of attitude we are trying to build our program around, guys that love football and will do whatever to help our team win.”