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Johnson could use a break as full-time kick returner

Times Staff Writer

USC receiver Ronald Johnson returned kickoffs last week as a fill-in for injured C.J. Gable.

Now, with Gable out for the season after abdominal surgery, the freshman from Michigan intends to make the position his own when the second-ranked Trojans play Stanford today in a Pacific 10 Conference game at the Coliseum.

Johnson returned three kicks in USC’s 27-24 victory over Washington, one for 31 yards. Johnson thought it could have gone farther.

“It was a poor decision I made,” Johnson said. “I should have kept it outside, so that’s something I’ve been working on.”

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Johnson averaged 25 yards in seven kickoff returns last season at Muskegon High.

The confidence he gained last week against Washington will serve him well against Stanford, Johnson said.

“I think I’ll be able to break one this game,” he said.

USC intended to add the shotgun formation to its offense this season, but the plan was temporarily scrapped because of injuries to the centers, offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian said.

Senior Matt Spanos was on track to start until he suffered a torn triceps the week before the opener against Idaho.

With freshman Kris O’Dowd stepping in, Sarkisian did not want to overburden him in the opener or in front of a hostile crowd at Nebraska.

Sarkisian said there might have been two instances to use the formation against Washington State. O’Dowd’s knee injury and Spanos’ emergency role precluded the Trojans from attempting it against Washington, Sarkisian said.

“We want to do it -- we know it’s going to be an asset to what we’re doing,” Sarkisian said. “It’s just a matter of time.”

USC punter Greg Woidneck did not attempt a punt the last time the Trojans played at the Coliseum, a 47-14 win over Washington State on Sept. 22.

And today, the Trojans are heavy favorites against a Stanford team that is surrendering 454 yards a game, so he might not be needed.

“It’s kind of tough sometimes to stay ready when the offense is doing great,” said Woidneck, who is averaging 40.3 yards a punt. “At the beginning of the game, you come out all hyped up and the next thing you know you haven’t done anything for a half-hour.

“So I have to stay loose and take a lot of kicks into the net. But I’ll take not punting if that means we don’t need it.”

Stanford quarterback Tavita Pritchard is the nephew of former Washington State quarterback Jack Thompson, who was known as “The Throwin’ Samoan” when he starred for the Cougars in the 1970s.

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gary.klein@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

KEYS TO THE GAME

No. 2 USC (4-0, 2-0)

vs. Stanford (1-3, 0-3)

Today, 4 p.m.

TV: Versus. Radio: 710

1 Flagging enthusiasm. After being penalized 16 times for 161 yards against Washington, USC must eliminate false starts on offense and personal fouls and pass-interference calls on defense. Struggling Stanford cannot afford to help the Trojans by giving up yardage because of penalties.

2 uarterback confidence: USC’s John David Booty needs to get back on track after one of his poorest performances as a Trojan. Receivers can help out by staying on their feet while running routes and hauling in catchable passes. Stanford quarterback Tavita Pritchard cannot be intimidated by the Trojans or the Coliseum crowd in his first start.

3 top the run. Stanford is expected to play conservatively without starting quarterback T.C. Ostrander, so the Trojans must control running back Anthony Kimble, who averages nearly five yards a carry. The Cardinal must contain Chauncey Washington and deal with the speed of Joe McKnight, among others.

-- Gary Klein


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