Receivers get a big boost

Times Staff Writer

One game does not qualify as a turnaround.

But after an impressive drop-free performance in their opener, USC receivers are confident that the criticism that dogged the unit last season is behind them.

Damian Williams, Patrick Turner, Vidal Hazelton and Ronald Johnson each made outstanding catches against Virginia. The receivers intend to continue their momentum next week against Ohio State and beyond.

“It’s going to be throughout the whole season,” Hazelton said Thursday.


Williams, the Arkansas transfer, debuted with a team-high seven receptions, Turner caught a touchdown pass and Hazelton had five catches before suffering an ankle sprain.

Johnson, however, was the greatest revelation.

The speedy sophomore from Michigan acknowledged stadium-sized anxiety when a ball thrown by quarterback Mark Sanchez hung in the air for what seemed like eternity before descending toward him in the end zone.

“I was like, ‘Wow . . . If I don’t catch this I’m going to get heckled the rest of my life,’ ” Johnson said.

Johnson hauled in the pass, double-clutching the ball before he secured it, completing a 49-yard scoring play. The touchdown fueled USC’s rout and signaled perhaps the return of a deep threat that was absent from the Trojans’ offense most of the last two seasons.

But for all the attention the third-quarter play received, Johnson’s earlier reception on a slant route and a leaping grab along the sideline marked bigger steps for a player who caught only seven passes and scored one touchdown last season.

“That catch over the middle gave me more courage,” Johnson said. “I want to make it so that to go over the middle is like second nature.

“On the sideline play, that was a hard ball and Mark put it out there for me to get it. I want to be a playmaker, and I came through.”

After the game, Coach Pete Carroll said of the receivers, “We’re much different from where we were at last season at this time.”

Johnson does not disagree.

“Last year, it was not really in my mind-set,” he said of making tough catches. “I am now. I got involved more in the middle and that opened my eyes that I can catch it.”

Wells watch

Ohio State tailback Chris “Beanie” Wells, who suffered a foot injury last week against Youngstown State, will not play on Saturday against Ohio, Buckeyes Coach Jim Tressel said.

Wells’ status for the USC game remains uncertain, but Trojans players anticipate that he will play.

Green day

After coaches instructed Broderick Green to leave the dancing behind and play to his strength, the redshirt freshman tailback from Arkansas responded Thursday with perhaps his best practice performance to date.

The 6-foot-2, 235-pound Green rumbled for several long gains and got the best of a collision with linebacker Rey Maualuga. Carroll said he instructed Green to be “The Hammer.”

“He maybe got caught up in trying to be like the other guys a little bit -- everybody’s got the quicks,” Carroll said, referring to the Trojans’ other five tailbacks. “He’s got the big body and the big shoulders that can allow him to be that kind of player.”

Quick kicks

The Trojans will practice today at 7 a.m., so that coaches can use the weekend to recruit. . . . Carroll said there was no word on the status of defensive lineman Nick Perry and running back Curtis McNeal, who signed letters of intent in February but are still trying to gain NCAA certification and admission. The deadline for admittance is the end of next week. “Those two guys are in overtime right now,” Carroll said. . . . Freshman tackle Tyron Smith continued to work with the first-team offense with hope of developing depth if he is needed this season. “He’s an extraordinary athlete at the position, as special as anybody we’ve had physically at his spot,” Carroll said.