LOS ANGELES (AP) — In a career full of highs and lows, Southern California’s Christian Rector reached a peak against Arizona State by going up, then down.
With the Sun Devils driving to win the game in the final minute, Rector tipped a pass by freshman Joey Yellen. The redshirt senior defensive end then dived to intercept that deflection, saving the 31-26 win and securing bowl eligibility for the Trojans.
“It was cool,” Rector said Wednesday. “It was a good, solid team win, but I moved on. I’m on to California and trying get the next one.”
That ability to navigate a range of emotions during a series, a game or a season has been well honed during Rector’s time at USC. His first year on campus in 2015 saw Clay Helton take over as interim coach midway through that season before getting the job on a permanent basis. Rector got his first taste of game action on special teams and as a reserve lineman during an unexpected run to the Rose Bowl in 2016.
Forced to take on a larger role because of injuries in 2017, Rector came out of nowhere to post 11 tackles for loss with 7½ sacks to finish third on the team in both categories as USC won the Pac-12 title.
However, Rector’s production slipped last season as he had to alternate between outside linebacker and his more natural spot at defensive end. He finished with nine tackles for loss and 4½ sacks. The Trojans didn’t fare much better, going 5-7 for their first losing season since 2000.
And while USC (6-4, 5-2 Pac-12) has rebounded with two regular-season games remaining, Rector has not been able to make as big a mark as he would have liked on the field. He sustained a high ankle sprain against Stanford, forcing him to miss the loss at BYU. When Rector returned, he lacked his usual burst and power, which prompted him to sit out two more games to get healthy.
In spite of the turmoil, Rector remains upbeat about his stint at USC.
“It’s been exciting, the highs and lows,” Rector said. “Perseverance through it all. The big plays. And the camaraderie with my brothers is what I’ll remember most.”
That positive attitude has allowed Rector to find other ways to contribute this season, as teammates have praised his leadership through trying circumstances. Freshman end Drake Jackson said Rector gave him immediate feedback on the sidelines during games he missed, able to process what Jackson was doing right or wrong on the sideline to help him adjust.
Jackson also said he is modeling his approach to the game on Rector’s.
“I’m always watching him, doing what he’s doing every day, and I take little bits and pieces from his game,” said Jackson, who has 9½ tackles for loss and 3½ sacks.
Rector said the lesson he has tried to impart onto younger players like Jackson is that not everything will be “rainbows and daisies.
“I mean, there’s going to be highs and lows, and the guys that can do it right the longest are the guys that are going to do it the best and do it for a long amount of time,” Rector said. “It’s a physical game, and there are injuries and ups and downs, and the guys that persevere will end up having the best time.”
Rector hopes to conclude his career on a positive note, starting on Saturday against an offensive line for the Golden Bears that has allowed a Pac-12 worst 24 sacks in six conference games. He will have a chance to get a measure of redemption against Cal and UCLA next week for late-season losses that kept USC out of a bowl last year, and there is still a chance of playing for the Pac-12 title and a Rose Bowl berth by winning out, combined with a slip-up by No. 8 Utah in any of its final three games.
As unlikely as that might seem, Jackson is optimistic the Trojans will find a way to give Rector an upbeat ending.
“This his last year, send him out with something big,” Jackson said. “Something he can remember when he leaves.”