USC’s Ronald Johnson stays with the program
Ronald Johnson has built his reputation at USC by leaving defenders in his wake on deep pass patterns.
But the route his mother, Miranda, remembers most was the very deliberate walk her son took at a Michigan airport. That was more than three years ago, when the speedy receiver left for college.
“We had already said goodbye but I watched him go down the line and my phone rang,” she said. “I could see his back and I could see he had the phone at his ear. He says, ‘Mom, thank you for everything. I appreciate it and I love you.’
“Ronald is a very good kid.”
The senior from Muskegon is back in the Midwest this weekend for No. 18 USC’s nonconference game Saturday at Minnesota.
Last season, a broken collarbone sustained in the final preseason scrimmage dashed Johnson’s hopes of playing at Ohio State. He also was limited at Notre Dame in his first game back from the injury.
Minnesota’s one-year-old TCF Bank Stadium won’t have the same atmosphere as historic Ohio Stadium or Notre Dame Stadium, but Johnson is excited.
“It means a lot,” said Johnson, whose hometown is about a 10-hour drive away on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. “I’m trying to get my whole family there and hopefully show what I can do.”
Johnson displayed his varied talents in the Trojans’ opener at Hawaii, catching three touchdown passes and returning a punt 89 yards for a touchdown. Last week against Virginia, he caught five passes, not including a 53-yard touchdown that was nullified by one of the Trojans’ 13 penalties.
“RoJo’s been our most consistent guy since the time we got here,” said Coach Lane Kiffin, who succeeded Pete Carroll in January but was USC’s recruiting coordinator in 2005 and 2006 when Johnson first appeared on the Trojans’ radar.
When Carroll bolted for the Seattle Seahawks in January, Johnson briefly considered making himself available for the NFL draft. But he decided to stay at USC and changed his jersey from No. 8 to No. 83 for an eventual transition to the NFL.
“I just thought, ‘Prepare myself like a pro, like I’m supposed to,’ ” he said.
After the NCAA handed down sanctions in June, including a two-year bowl ban, Johnson again pondered leaving, this time for another school. But the lure of graduating from USC and building on his connection with Kiffin and quarterback Matt Barkley convinced him to stay.
“I wanted to finish what I started,” he said.
Back at Muskegon High, consistency, with regular doses of the spectacular, was Johnson’s hallmark as a receiver and cornerback. Johnson helped the Big Reds win state titles as a sophomore and senior, and they might have won three in a row if Johnson hadn’t suffered a season-ending knee injury early in his junior season.
“I don’t think there’s ever been a faster rehab from a torn ACL,” said Tony Annese, Johnson’s high school coach. “He was up at 5:30 in the morning and waiting to get into the weight room at 6. He had another weightlifting class in the middle of the day and then worked out again after school.”
In several high school games, Johnson scored multiple touchdowns on combinations of kickoff, punt and interception returns as well as pass receptions and runs.
“Never in his time did he ever think he had a good game, or one that couldn’t have been better,” said Annese, now coaching at Grand Rapids Community College. “That’s just the kind of player Ronald is — always wanting to improve.”
Michigan, Ohio State and Florida were among the programs that courted Johnson, who also was regarded as a top cornerback prospect. His mother credits former Trojans assistant Brennan Carroll for convincing her son to sign with USC.
“Every opportunity they could be here, they were here,” she said. “They were the only school that actually did that. … The ones that were close pretty much felt like they had him in their pocket.”
Johnson was the Trojans’ top kickoff returner as a freshman in 2007 but caught only seven passes.
As a sophomore, he hauled in a 49-yard bomb from Mark Sanchez in the opener at Virginia and finished with 33 catches and eight touchdowns.
Johnson was set for a breakout season a year ago until he got sandwiched by two teammates after catching a long pass during a scrimmage a week before the opener. He sat out the first five games, then came back and caught 34 passes and scored three touchdowns for a team that finished a disappointing 9-4.
Johnson’s senior presence during the summer aided in the development of freshmen receivers Robert Woods, Markeith Ambles and Kyle Prater.
“Once I got here, he said, ‘Take my spot in all the reps,’ ” said Woods, who is starting opposite Johnson. “That helped me a lot to learn the plays and it sure made it easier.”
Because of the bowl ban, USC’s season is guaranteed to end in December against UCLA. Johnson intends to turn the ban into a positive by utilizing the extra month to prepare for the NFL’s draft process.
Meantime, he is focused on finishing the season as fast as he started it at Hawaii.
“I just want to keep it going,” he said. “And get better.”
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