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THE RIVALRY: Saturday at the Coliseum, 12:30 p.m. : Their First Look : Miller Waiting for His Chance to Catch on at USC

TIMES STAFF WRITER

He knew a year ago he would be in the Coliseum this Saturday, suited up in a football uniform.

Problem was, he didn’t know which uniform.

He finally decided he would look better in cardinal and gold, than light blue and gold, and the result is that Billy Miller will be primed for Saturday, hoping for an opportunity to achieve something great for his team, yet at the same time hoping he’s not called upon to do so.

Miller is Keyshawn Johnson’s backup . . . and maybe his heir apparent too.

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A true freshman, he has played in every game this season, as a punt-return team specialist and on the “hands team,” the unit USC fields when it anticipates an on-side kickoff.

“I’m an athlete, so I want to play very badly, but I also don’t want anything to happen to Keyshawn,” he said, about how he feels about Saturday’s USC-UCLA game.

Miller, one of six USC freshmen likely to play Saturday, found himself in a recruiting tug-of-war between coaches John Robinson and Terry Donahue last year.

A 6-foot-3, 210-pound wide receiver, Miller was one of the nation’s most widely recruited football players as was his roommate, starting cornerback Daylon McCutcheon.

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Many were surprised, Miller said, that Robinson won this battle.

“I live in Westlake Village, about five minutes from Terry Donahue’s house,” he said.

“I know him, I know his daughters . . . The whole Westlake Village-Agoura area is kind of a UCLA area. A lot of people there were surprised I picked SC, including two of my [Westlake] high school coaches, who’d gone to UCLA.”

Miller said he was impressed with both Donahue and Robinson, but said he was particularly taken with Robinson’s cards-on-the-table approach.

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“A lot of coaches were telling me I’d start for their programs immediately,” Miller said. “One even told me I’d catch 50 balls my first year [he has caught three passes at USC].

“Coach Robinson told me flat-out I’d be behind Keyshawn my freshman year, but that I’d be given every chance to get that position for the next three years. The other thing I liked about him was, he talked of winning national championships. All the other coaches talked of just going to bowl games.

“And he told me there are plenty of great high school players but he was only interested in the ones he felt wanted to win more than anything, and he said he felt that way about me. And he was right.”

Miller had one of the great California prep receiving careers. He caught 187 passes for 3,017 yards, fourth best in California history.

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Robinson may find himself battling Donahue over another Miller in a few years. Miller’s brother, Tyrone, just turned 13--and is 6-2 and 235.

“They won’t let him play Pop Warner because he’s too big,” Miller said.

Robinson said that despite a lack of playing time at wide receiver, Miller has had “a great freshman season.”

“We give Keyshawn the day off on the week’s first practice because his legs are tired,” Robinson said.

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“So that’s been Billy’s game day, and he’s had some great practices. He’s shown us he could be the starter at Keyshawn’s position next year.”

Of course, Larry Parker, the sophomore starting sophomore flanker, will have something to say about that. So will Chris Miller, a junior flanker and Johnson’s cousin.

So will Mike Sanford, who coaches the wide receivers.

“For the last three weeks, Billy has had great practices,” Sanford said. “If we had to send him in, I’d feel great about it. This guy would be starting at a lot of places. He has a good grasp of our offense now. He knows what he has to do on every play.”

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After a Tuesday practice, Miller feels as if he has played a complete game.

“I get maybe 20 to 30 balls thrown to me on Tuesdays,” he said. “When Keyshawn comes back, it drops to two to five. But this is my learning year, and I’m taking advantage of it. I learn a lot just listening to Coach Sanford and Keyshawn talking.”

Of Saturday’s environment, a crowd of 92,000 and millions watching on television, Miller could only shake his head.

“When I was a little kid, playing Pop Warner ball, I used to be an Oklahoma fan. I watched them on TV, saw those huge crowds, and tried to imagine what it would be like, doing great things before big crowds. I still try to imagine it, and I can’t grasp it yet.”

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Already, though, he has contributed as a special teams player.

In the 26-14 victory over Washington State, Parker returned a punt 63 yards, but fumbled the ball into the end zone, where another freshman, Mike Bastianelli, recovered for a touchdown after Miller made a key block.

“Coach Robinson broke the play down in the film session and pointed out how I’d helped make a big play. That felt good, that he recognized me.”

Making a big play. Before 92,000. A guy can dream, can’t he?

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Stranger things have happened, in USC-UCLA games.

In 1949, a fourth-string quarterback, Dean Schneider, came on to lead the Trojans to a 21-7 victory.

First-year anonymity, Miller implied, isn’t half bad. Good position for a sudden strike.

“I’m a nobody,” he said. “Not even people who follow SC football know who I am.”

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Not yet , they don’t.


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