October 5, 2008

Johnson's skills paying off

Ronald Johnson's season got off to a good start, with him using his speed to get open in the end zone at Virginia.

The pass came his way, and Johnson dropped it.

"I still can't believe it," he said.

Since that drop, though, Johnson's been as important part of the USC offense as anyone else, stretching defenses like rubber.

Through four games this season, the Trojans are averaging over 63 yards more through the air a game, and Johnson's a big reason why.

"He's matured," sophomore receiver Damian Williams said. "Playing as a freshman is hard enough, but playing as a freshman at USC, that's just tough. He was in a lot of situations last year where he didn't quite know everything.

"Now, he's found his home."

Talking to Johnson about the differences between now and then, and a wave of joy sweeps over his face.

"I feel like it wasn't even me out there," he said. "Now, I'm out there for a reason. That feels great."

Saturday in the Trojans' 44-10 win over Oregon at the Coliseum, Johnson caught two passes for 78 yards.

The big catch, a 63-yard touchdown strike in the first half was typical Johnson - with him using his superior speed to get open. On his other catch, Johnson ran a short slant and made a tackler miss on his way to a 15-yard gain.

In tracking his progress, the slant route and catch speaks to his evolution from a guy who could only run go routes.

"It's a lot better because I feel like I'm being used as a weapon," Johnson said. "I can run slant routes. I can run stop routes. I can do whatever I have to do, and they have to respect it. That opens up the field."

His confidence and newly found versatility have earned him a place as one of the Trojans' top receivers, USC head coach Pete Carroll said.

"He's an awesome football player now," Carroll said. "He's playing so fast and so tough. I love the way he's playing. He's 100 percent more effective because he knows what he's doing."

And with Mark Sanchez under center, the Trojan offense now has a receiver who can outrun the defense and a quarterback who can deliver the ball down the field.

"He's such an awesome deep threat. He's running great routes," Sanchez said. "He's open underneath. He can take guys deep. He's really figuring out his niche in this offense."

Johnson has already caught more passed for more yards and more touchdowns this season than in his freshman year.

"I feel like I'm almost to where I want to be," he said. "I'm almost peaking."

Still, plays like the drop at Virginia will have a spot in Johnson's mind, using the momentary failure as a fuel for improvement. And, he's even made things interesting.

"I made a bet with the offensive lineman that if I drop a ball, I owe them five dollars - in practice, in games, wherever," Johnson said. "I've done good. I'm only down 10.

"Almost there."

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