Out at Oregon, in at Utah: Why the Darren Carrington saga played out well for both sides

Utah gave Darren Carrington a second chance after Oregon dismissed the standout receiver. (AP)

LOS ANGELES — In the span of less than three hours on Thursday afternoon, two coaches sat in front of the same podium and explained why they made opposite decisions about the same player.

Oddly enough, a pretty convincing case can be made that both made the right call.

When newly hired Oregon football coach Willie Taggart dismissed star wide receiver Darren Carrington two weeks ago, he sent an unmistakable message that his previous tough talk about player conduct was more than just lip service. Seeking to make it clear that the disciplinary issues that occurred during Mark Helfrich’s final season would not be tolerated, Taggart promised soon after he was hired in December that players who did not follow his rules would be “on the next train out of here.”

Carrington, Oregon’s most productive receiver last season, was the first to challenge Taggart’s zero-tolerance edict. He was arrested on July 1 on a misdemeanor DUI charge after he allegedly collided with a pole while navigating a McDonald’s drive-thru, the latest in a string of off-field incidents for the talented yet erratic senior standout.

“It’s tough because you always want to help young people,” Taggart said Thursday at Pac-12 media day. “You don’t ever want to throw them out or kick them to the curb. You want to help them reach their dreams, goals and aspirations, but in the same sense we have rules. You have to abide by the rules, and when you break the rules, there are consequences. Unfortunately, the consequences for Darren were for us both to move on.”

The absence of Carrington leaves Oregon with only one wide receiver or tight end who made a meaningful contribution last season, but the Ducks’ short-term loss could be a long-term gain if Taggart’s move helps foster accountability in the program.

Though Oregon was noticeably talent-bereft on defense late in Helfrich’s tenure, ineffective recruiting wasn’t only reason for the Ducks’ abrupt fall from national title contenders to eight-loss underachievers. Players slacked off in the weight room, hung their heads when they fell behind in games and sporadically got in trouble off the field, all signs of a program in need of new leadership and stricter discipline.

“It’s unfortunate what happened with Darren, but Coach Taggart did what he thought was best for the team,” Oregon linebacker Troy Dye said. “Coach Taggart said, ‘One slip up and you’re gone,’ and he wasn’t joking around. He showed everyone that he means business.”

Whereas the Oregon staff felt retaining Carrington would have been damaging to its attempt to instill a new culture, the coach that chose to give the talented receiver a second chance can afford to take that sort of risk. Utah’s Kyle Whittingham, the Pac-12’s longest-tenured coach, has built a high-character program that has won eight or more games in nine of the past 11 seasons while typically avoiding off-field trouble.

Taking a chance on Carrington is the sort of risk Whittingham usually avoids. In addition to his DUI charge earlier this month, Carrington missed the 2014 national title game against Ohio State for allegedly failing a drug test. He was also accused of shoving and breaking the arm of a fellow Oregon student last fall, though no charges were filed.

“It’s always a tough decision when you’re talking about a player that you’re going to add to your program that potentially has a checkered past,” Whittingham said. “You have to make a decision based on all the information you can gather. Is he remorseful? Does he understand that he’s done some stupid things and is he ready to put it behind him and move on? There is so much that goes into it. It’s a judgment call. You’re not always right. But I feel in this case it was the right thing to do to give Darren another opportunity.”

Carrington is on campus at Utah but not yet cleared to practice. The graduate transfer will be eligible to play for the Utes when they begin the regular season in late August as long as he completes the requisite paperwork to receive a waiver from the Pac-12 and NCAA.

One reason Whittingham was willing to give Carrington a second chance is that he fills a need for the Utes.

Inadequate offense is the biggest reason Utah is the only Pac-12 South program not to win the division title since the conference expanded six years ago. The Utes return only three starters on offense from last season, suggesting they definitely have a need for an explosive playmaker like Carrington, who caught 30 or more passes for 600 or more yards in each of his three seasons at Oregon.

Utah saw firsthand what Carrington is capable of last season when he caught the winning touchdown pass against the Utes in Oregon’s 30-28 upset victory in Salt Lake City. Carrington also caught three touchdown passes in Oregon’s spring scrimmage, at the time drawing praise from Taggart and the rest of the new staff.

“He’s a terrific talent on the field,” Whittingham said. “One of the common denominators that came back from all the people I talked to about Darren was his fierce, competitive drive. He’s just a guy that is the ultimate competitor. He brings a toughness to that receiver position that will help us out.”

While Oregon had good reason to dismiss Carrington and Utah made a smart gamble giving him a second chance, there is one downside to the situation for the Ducks. Carrington and the Utes visit Autzen Stadium on Oct. 28.

Said Taggart, “I wish Darren nothing but the best, wherever he plays. Except against us.”

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