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Chargers' New Role for Old Hand : USFL Star Johnson Had to Wait for His Chance to Play

November 01, 1986|MARC APPLEMAN | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — When Charger wide receiver Trumaine Johnson caught eight passes against Kansas City two weeks ago, he doubled his receiving output for all of last season.

Johnson followed with seven receptions against Philadelphia last week to raise his season totals to 22 catches for 295 yards and a touchdown.

Suddenly, the focus is once again on Johnson's soft hands instead of his idle hands.

"Trumaine has played an increasingly prominent role in our offense recently," said Coach Al Saunders, who coached the wide receivers before being named to succeed Don Coryell Wednesday. "The biggest thing is his understanding and knowledge of the offense. He has worked extra hard and has a better understanding of what to do."

Last season, his first with the Chargers, Johnson played sparingly and caught only 4 passes for 51 yards and a touchdown. He spent a lot more time reading his playbook than running pass routes.

"I was a little paranoid to the situation last year," Johnson said. "It wasn't like I anticipated it would be when I came to the Chargers. It was like taking a step backward."

A giant step.

"When you are used to catching a lot of passes," Johnson said, "you get in that mode. It gets repetitious."

When Johnson starred in the United States Football League, catching eight passes in a game was a normal day's work. Sometimes he would catch eight in a quarter.

He caught 171 passes and had 23 touchdowns for the Chicago Blitz and Arizona Wranglers from 1983-85.

At Grambling, Johnson was not only his team's primary receiver, he also played wingback and handled the ball about 75% of the time.

"I knew you can't just come in here and tell guys like Charlie Joiner and Wes Chandler it's time to step aside," Johnson said.

But . . .

"I was just as good as those guys," Johnson said.

Saunders disagreed.

"There is such a change from the USFL to the NFL," Saunders said. "He (Johnson) was not at the level Wes Chandler, Charlie Joiner or Lionel James were. But he certainly has made up ground."

Last year, Johnson appeared in 11 games, including two starts, and he did not become the explosive receiver the Chargers hoped they were getting when they drafted him in the sixth round in 1983 and signed him in the summer of 1985.

"We weren't disappointed in Trumaine because he is really a hard-working guy," Saunders said.

However, there was speculation during the off-season that Johnson was on the trading block. Johnson signed five one-year contracts with the Chargers before the 1985 season. The contracts paid him $290,000 in base salary in 1985, $325,000 this year and escalates to $425,000 in 1989.

Saunders claims the Chargers were not trying to get rid of Johnson.

"The skilled positions were ones we felt we had some depth in," Saunders said. "We were looking to see who on our offensive team other teams might be interested in."

The Chargers held on to Johnson.

"I tried not to get frustrated last year," Johnson said. "I'm not a selfish-type player. When I'm called upon, I try to respond. . . . But standing on the side and reading the playbook is a tough way to learn."

Trying to master the Charger offense, Johnson returned to San Diego from his home in Baton Rouge, La., six weeks before the 1986 training camp began.

"During the off-season, I said there has to be something I'm doing wrong," Johnson said. "So I came in early to get more comfortable with the offense."

Johnson led the Chargers with 12 catches during the exhibition season. He was set to become another weapon in the Charger offense.

However, Joiner and Chandler remained the starters and Johnson was once again the third wide receiver who only played sparingly.

"When the season started," Johnson said, "it seemed like I was right back where I was last year."

Even when Johnson did get in the game, he was still adjusting to not being the primary receiver. On the Chargers, anyone and everyone catches the ball.

"Here you can run a pass route 30 or 40 times and get the ball one time," Johnson said. "It was a big adjustment for me. That one time when you relax is the time the ball is thrown your way and you're not ready."

Johnson got his big chance against Kansas City two weeks ago. In the week before the game, former Coach Don Coryell said he was going to make some lineup changes because the team had lost five straight.

One of the moves would include playing Johnson more. When Chandler injured his foot early in the game, Johnson got to play even more than expected.

And despite injuring his toe on the artificial turf in Philadelphia last week, Johnson will play Sunday against the Chiefs.

"I'm enjoying it," Johnson said. "It really feels good to be back in there. I haven't had a super ballgame yet, but I don't think I've had the opportunity to reach my potential in the NFL. That's yet to come."

Charger Notes In response to a published report that General Manager Johnny Sanders would not be back next season, Charger owner Alex Spanos said: "He is and will be my general manager. I have no intention of making any changes." Several weeks ago, Spanos had a discussion with Terry Bledsoe, the former New York Giants' and Buffalo Bills' executive. However, Spanos said it was not a job interview and downplayed its significance. Sanders said he has been told "not to worry" about his job.

Dan Fouts

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