With 35 seconds left in the first half of USC's 48-41 win over Arizona on Saturday, the Trojans approached the line at the Arizona 38 holding a 24-12 lead but facing a key fourth-and-two situation.
A conversion would put them into position to extend their lead to 15 with a field goal or even 19 with a touchdown. A turnover on downs would give the Wildcats the ball with enough time to cull together a few plays to get into field-goal range.
Coach Lane Kiffin called a short pass play, but quarterback Matt Barkley's first three reads were covered tightly by Arizona defenders. So he delivered the ball to the right side of the field, to a little-known backup fullback named Ross Cumming.
Cumming corralled the pass, notched the first down and got out of bounds, allowing the Trojans to get a field goal four plays later and go into halftime with a more comfortable lead.
"Really good job by him staying alive on the sideline and Matt’s progression to be able to get to the fourth guy was big," Kiffin said before joking that Cumming wasn't "way up on the ladder" of Barkley's options at the line of scrimmage
A converted linebacker who switched positions midseason and has long excelled at special teams as a Trojan, Cumming's first week at fullback was a success. Having him there allows USC to keep Rhett Ellison at his more comfortable tight end position, and still maintain a veteran presence in the backfield.
“I wish we had done it earlier," Kiffin said of Cumming's move. "It’s just an example of a guy staying around here, understanding the systems, understanding techniques.
"What we teach on special teams can really carry over to offense and defense, sometimes regardless of position, and Ross is a great example of that to be able to step in and contribute.”
Cumming, a senior and former walk-on, is a special-teamer for this team, first and foremost. He starts on all four of those units. But he also played a few snaps against Syracuse and Arizona State at tight end, and, when it was revealed that Christian Thomas was going to miss the rest of the year, it was thought that Cumming would remain there for the rest of the year.
But that wasn't what the coaches had in mind. They wanted him at fullback the whole time.
"I mean, that was the expected goal for me," Cumming said. "Coach Joe Barry told me I'd be switching over to offense and he told me I'd be playing some goal-line fullback. And that's essentially what I'm doing after my two-week stint at tight end to help numbers out."
Cumming played some fullback in high school at Santa Margarita -- six years ago -- but hadn't done anything on offense since then. But when Barry and Kiffin approached him with the idea to make the move, he said right away that he was up for it.
"The transition was awesome. I just love to contribute and they found a way for me to contribute more than just special teams," he said. "What I really like about it is the ability to just come downhill and just lay into somebody. It's pretty similar to the mike linebacker in that way.
"Even though it's the opposite, it's the exact same position."
Cumming, 24, has long been a coaches' favorite at USC, even in the days before the Kiffin regime. Former head coach Pete Carroll and one-time special-teams coach Todd McNair loved his special-teams skills and tenacity at first sight, and that's how he rose through the ranks to earn a scholarship and more playing time.
And the current staff was willing to make the midseason move -- typically a risky proposition -- because of the trust he has developed over the past year and a half.
In short, Kiffin and Co. wouldn't open up playing time for just any player. But they opened it up for him.
"I don't know if they did it just for me," Cumming said. "But I know they did it after they saw me for a few plays at tight end and they saw what I did there and they felt comfortable with it and thought, 'This guy can make the move to fullback.'